Not every state or federal court in the U.S. has power over every resident of the country. Courts are limited by their jurisdictions. Though the matter is more nuanced than this, you can think of courts as having power and authority over people who reside within the court’s boundaries or actions that occur within the court’s geographic area.

That’s why, when you need to file a lawsuit, you must determine where you have jurisdiction to file the suit. If you file in the wrong place, the other party can immediately ask the court to dismiss the case. You end up wasting time and money, and you will need to refile in the appropriate jurisdiction.

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There are two types of jurisdiction: personal and subject matter. Neither type of jurisdiction may be a concern if you’re filing a lawsuit based on an issue that occurred where you live and against a defendant that lives in the same place. However, jurisdiction may become extremely complicated when potential defendants live in other states or the issue that caused your lawsuit happened out of state. For instance, if you’re from Washington and you get into a car accident in Oregon with another driver who lives in California, where do you sue? In these situations, contact an accident attorney right away.

Personal jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction refers to the connection between the individuals and the court. It’s a question of whether the court has the power to make a decision regarding the individual being sued, since they may be ordered to do something or refrain from doing something. For example, in a personal injury lawsuit, the defendant could be ordered to pay the plaintiff (the injured person) a great deal of money. In a property dispute, one property owner could be ordered to refrain from going on their neighbor’s property without permission.

In a case well-known to lawyers and law students, International Shoe v. Washington, the court determined that for personal jurisdiction to be present, the defendant must have certain minimum contacts with the region in which the court sits. The court stated:

“Historically, the jurisdiction of courts to render judgment in personam is grounded on their de facto power over the defendant's person. Hence, his presence within the territorial jurisdiction of a court was prerequisite to its rendition of a judgment personally binding him. Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 733. But now that the capias ad respondendum has given way to personal service of summons or other form of notice, due process requires only that, in order to subject a defendant to a judgment in personam, if he be not present within the territory of the forum, he have certain minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’ Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 463.”

Personal jurisdiction is achieved when a person lives within the region governed by the court, though, as stated in the court’s holding, it can also arise from minimum contacts to the state where the court sits. Minimum contacts may include:

  • Working within the state
  • Visiting the statute for work or vacation
  • Victimizing residents of that state

Without personal jurisdiction, which means the defendant neither lives in the state nor has minimum contacts with it, a defendant can immediately file for a dismissal of the case. If the case is dismissed without prejudice, then the plaintiff has the option to refile in an appropriate jurisdiction.

A defendant may waive personal jurisdiction either intentionally or accidentally. If the defendant fails to punctually file a motion to dismiss based on lack of personal jurisdiction and the court case moves forward, then personal jurisdiction is waived, as explained by law firm Carlton Fields. A defendant can also choose not to raise this defense if another jurisdiction is not preferable, either because it is inconvenient or another state’s law would be less favorable to the defendant.

Subject matter jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction is whether a court has the right to preside over a specific type of issue. For example, you can only file for divorce in the specific court that handles divorces. For breach of contract or warranty issues, many jurisdictions have different courts based on the amount of the claim. Claims worth less than a certain amount, say $10,000, go to small claims court. Cases worth more than the threshold go to a different civil court.

Neither party can waive the need for subject matter jurisdiction. If a court does not have this type of jurisdiction, the case may be dismissed by the court.

Out-of-state lawsuits

It is challenging to deal with a lawsuit that must take place in another state, whether you are the plaintiff or defendant. It can be difficult to travel for court and it may strain your finances. This is a cost-benefit analysis you should discuss with an attorney before filing suit in another state or determining how to deal with a lawsuit against you. One method that can ease the burden of an out-of-state lawsuit is hiring counsel local to the court. Your lawyer can represent you at most hearings and you may only need to travel for certain events, such as a trial.

If you are ever involved in a lawsuit, regardless of jurisdiction, contact a lawyer as early as possible to ensure the best result.