What is a state or U.S. Circuit Court of Ap- peals? In the
early history of America, each
Supreme Court justice traveled
to a group of states to hold appeals court cases that had been
referred from the district courts.
While an associate Supreme
Court justice may occasionally
act in an appellate decision (such
as a last-minute death penalty
appeal), there are now too many
cases for the nine justices to hear.
Cases for which federal appeals courts have jurisdiction include
those involving treaties, patents, bank-ruptcies, issues of constitutionality (
occasionally involving unusually large punitive damage awards), cases involving
ambassadors, admiralty cases, habeas
corpus, interstate disputes, diversity of
venue situations, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the
Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA)
and similar U.S. government cases. Under the U.S. Constitution the state courts
handle everything else. In the federal
court system the district court is the trial
court. In states the trial court may have
different names: the superior court, the
county court, and in New York the trial
court is called the “supreme” court, while
the higher court is the Court of Appeals.
There is usually a period of time between
the filing of an appeal and the court’s find-
ings—often as long as a year or more. The
decision may be brief: affirmation of the
trial court’s decision, reversal and return
of the case to the trial court to obtain
more information before making its judg-
ment (often rejecting a “summary judg-
ment” by the trial court), or a lengthily
worded opinion on the law involved in the
case, with possible concurring or dissent-
ing opinions from other appellate justices.
But what if the parties are still not satisfied with the appellate ruling? Then the
matter goes to the state or U.S. Supreme
Court for federal court cases, which may
elect to hear the case or reject it, allowing
the appellate decision to stand. Acceptance is called a writ of certiorari, implying that the higher court has accepted the
case for review.
Perhaps all this explains why “litigation”
should be a last resort for an insurer, and
why adjusters need to make the best pos-
sible decisions early in each claim in order
to avoid litigation. True, some litigation
cannot be avoided, or the claim may actu-
ally begin when the insured is sued with
no prior notice to the insurer – but even
then there are ways to request or obtain ex-
tensions while investigation continues, or
there are ways to arbitrate or mediate with
the parties without the “shooting war” of
a trial. Unless it is absolutely in
the insurer’s best interest to go to
trial, a trial should be viewed as
a failure on the part of the claims
department to resolve matters
without the court’s help.
How does one know what previous appellate courts have decided? In state courts, trial court
decisions are rarely published
except locally, but state appellate
courts may elect to publish or not
publish their decisions. These are
recorded in regional “reporters,”
Federal courts may also decide to publish or not publish the trial court’s decision. For a district court decision, the
indicator will be the supplemental volume, page and district: Smith v. Jones, 123
F.Supp.3d 456 (S.D. Ohio, 2001). Appellate decisions are shown by the involved
Circuit Court: Smith v. Jones, 123 F.3d 456
(6th Cir., 2002). There are 12 federal appellate circuits and seven state reporting
districts. Next month we will continue
our look at litigation.
Ken Brownlee, CPCU, is a former
adjuster and risk manager based
in Atlanta, Ga. He now authors and
edits claims-adjusting textbooks.
and Court Decisions — Part 4
As Yogi said, ‘It ain’t over till it’s over!’
Go online for a listing of U.S.
Circuits and State Reporter Regions.