Immigration Status and the Right to Sue for Personal Injury

As a Spanish-speaking personal injury attorney, I have had the privilege of representing many immigrants in personal injury cases.   Regardless of immigration status, immigrants have the right to sue for injuries caused by the negligence of others, and have the right to claim earnings lost as a result of their injuries.

The Supreme Court of the United States has long held that lawfully admitted resident aliens have the same right to sue for personal injury as U.S. citizens, because they have the same rights as U.S. citizens under the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“It has long been settled ? that the term ‘person’ ? encompasses lawfully admitted resident aliens as well as citizens of the United States and entitles both citizens and aliens to the equal protection of the laws of the State in which they reside.”  Graham v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 365, 371 (1971).[1]

In its decision, the Court further explained its ruling in part as follows:

“We agree with the three-judge court in the Pennsylvania case that the ‘justification of limiting expenses is particularly inappropriate and unreasonable when the discriminated class consists of aliens. Aliens like citizens pay taxes and may be called into the armed forces. Unlike the short-term residents in Shapiro, aliens may live within a state for many years, work in the state and contribute to the economic growth of the state.’ 321 F. Supp., at 253. [2] There can be no ‘special public interest’ in tax revenues to which aliens have contributed on an equal basis with the residents of the State.  Accordingly, we hold that a state statute that denies welfare benefits to resident aliens and one that denies them to aliens who have not resided in the United States for a specified number of years violate the Equal Protection Clause.” Id. at 376.

The United States Supreme Court has never addressed the question of whether an immigrant unlawfully present in this country may sue for personal injuries.  However, the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that immigrants unlawfully present may sue for personal injuries, and have the right to recover for wages lost because of their injuries.  In the case of Peterson v. Neme, 222 Va. 477 (1981)[3], the Virginia Supreme Court first noted that virtually every court that had considered the question had decided such immigrants may recover for their personal injuries:

“Although the Supreme Court has never had occasion to decide whether aliens unlawfully resident in the United States have standing to sue, lower federal courts and courts in sister states have decided the question in the affirmative. [4]We have been unable to find any decision in the negative except the one cited by the defendant, Coules v. Pharris, 212 Wis. 558, 250 N.W. 404 (1933), and that case was expressly overruled in Arteaga v. Literski, supra. Accordingly, we hold that Neme had standing to sue in Virginia’s courts.”  Id., 222 Va. at 481.

The Virginia Supreme Court held that any evidence regarding a claimant’s immigration status is irrelevant and immaterial, and therefore not admissible in an immigrant’s claims for personal injuries and resulting losses. With regard to lost wages, the Court upheld the trial court’s ruling that the claimant could claim for lost earnings, as follows:

“The trial judge ruled, and we support his decision, that the evidence was inadmissible because it was irrelevant and immaterial to Neme’s right to recover damages for lost wages. Even if the excluded evidence was competent for the purpose Peterson suggests, we question its rebuttal value; if Neme’s status did not deter her from working before she was injured, it is improbable it did so later.  Obviously, the proffered evidence was also uniquely prejudicial. We believe the trial judge properly could conclude that the prejudicial impact of the proffered evidence outweighed its probative value, and we sustain his rulings.” 222 Va. at 482-3.

If you or your loved one has been injured, call us at 866-388-1307 for a free consultation.  Immigration status should not prevent you from pursuing just compensation for your injuries.

[2] See also Purdy & Fitzpatrick v. California, 71 Cal. 2d 566, 581-582, 456 P.2d 645, 656 (1969).
[4] See, e.g., Hagl v. Jacob Stern & Sons, Inc., 396 F. Supp. 779 (E.D.Pa. 1975); Martinez v. Fox Valley Bus Lines, 17 F. Supp. 576 (N.D. Ill. 1936); Janusis v. Long, 284 Mass. 403, 188 N.E. 228 (1933); Montoya v. Gateway Insurance Co., 168 N.J. Super. 100, 401 A.2d 1102 (1979); Torres v. Sierra, 89 N.M. 441, 553 P.2d 721 (1976); Catalanotto v. Palazzolo, 46 Misc.2d 381, 259 N.Y.S.2d 473 (1965); Commercial Standard Fire & Marine Co. v. Galindo, 484 S.W.2d 635 (Tex. Civ. App. 1972); Arteaga v. Literski, 83 Wis.2d 128, 265 N.W.2d 148 (1978).