Venue, Jurisdiction, and Why They Matter for Your Lawsuit

Learn the difference between venue vs. jurisdiction in a court of law so that your case doesn’t get thrown out before it even begins.

When filing a personal injury lawsuit, most people focus on the extent of their medical treatment. Lawyers are thinking about getting the evidence they need to prove their case.

Those are valid and worthwhile pursuits. But there are other more technical considerations that can affect your lawsuit.

Courts are created and constrained by law. This means that not every court can hear every case. In fact, most courts do not have any power to decide your lawsuit. The legal concepts of jurisdiction and venue control what court can hear your case. They can affect whether you win. They can also create massive problems, like when you are injured in a foreign country.

This article will introduce you to the basics of jurisdiction and venue. These concepts can have a big effect on how your case is heard, decided, and resolved. Both concepts relate to where you file a civil action. But they have different requirements and are measured differently by the law.

What Is Jurisdiction?

A lawyer questioning a witness in front of a judge in a courtroom

The most basic consideration of any court is whether it has jurisdiction over the parties to your case. This is called personal jurisdiction.

Courts must also have the ability to decide the claim or cause of action you present. This is known as subject matter jurisdiction.

If you cannot establish one of these at the beginning of your case, the court will not allow you to continue.

1. Personal Jurisdiction

At its most basic level, personal jurisdiction means that a court has the power to hear a dispute involving a party, and to make a decision concerning that party’s rights. The first procedural requirement of personal jurisdiction is that a party must be served with a complaint and related papers (known as “service of process”) in the state where the court sits.

When you file a lawsuit, you are the “plaintiff” and the person or company you’re suing is the “defendant.”

If the defendant is not personally served with process, the court generally cannot exercise jurisdiction over that party and the case may not proceed. If a defendant cannot be located or is evading service of process, it is sometimes possible, with court approval, to serve a defendant by publication in a newspaper or other public forum.

In the case of International Shoe v. State of Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that a court cannot assert personal jurisdiction over a defendant unless that defendant has “minimum contacts” with the state.

The “minimum contacts” test will differ from case to case. If the defendant is a person (not a company) who lives in a state, the defendant has minimum contacts. If the defendant is a company that has a principal place of business in a state, it definitely has more than the required minimum contacts.

The Supreme Court also clarified in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson that, if a defendant could reasonably expect to be sued in a state, there is likely jurisdiction.

Your takeaway from this is that you should usually file your lawsuit in the state where the person or company you sue is located. If not, that doesn’t mean there is no jurisdiction, but you’ll need some legal help to determine whether you have sufficient facts to get personal jurisdiction.

2. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Unlike personal jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction refers to whether the court in which you are trying to sue can hear the type of claim that you are bringing. There are different state courts that hear different kinds of cases.

For example, if you are in California and you have an injury resulting in $30,000 of medical bills, you cannot bring your claim in small claims court. California small claims courts only hear cases up to $10,000. You’ll have to file your case in general jurisdiction court.

Another example of subject matter jurisdiction is civil cases based on the United States Constitution or federal laws. This kind of jurisdiction, unique to federal courts, is called federal question jurisdiction.

For example, if you are bringing a civil rights case under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, you must bring that complaint in federal court because state courts do not have jurisdiction to decide issues of federal law. On the other hand, federal courts can have jurisdiction of state law claims in certain circumstances, like the parties living in different states (known as diversity jurisdiction).

What Is Venue?

Group of lawyers having a discussion in front of a building

While jurisdiction presents a fairly rigid requirement about the court that has the power to decide your case, venue can be a bit more flexible.

Venue refers to the courthouse (depending on the state, the county or judicial district) where you file your action. It’s also where your case will go to trial.

The general rule for venue is a lawsuit can happen in one of two places.

Venue is proper against a defendant where they live or do business, no matter where the incident took place. More commonly, cases are brought against defendants in places where a substantial part of the events that gave rise to the lawsuit happened.

For example, let’s say you live in Nevada. A motorist visits from Utah. That motorist causes a car accident in Nevada that injures you. In this case, the proper venue could be either the county in Utah where the motorist lives or the county in Nevada where the accident happened.

Venue is not as immovable as jurisdiction, though. If parties are extremely inconvenienced or there is another good reason, they can make a motion to the court for change of venue.

In commercial contracts or liability waivers, it’s also very common for companies to use forum selection clauses that specify the venue in the event that there is a later lawsuit. Big companies like to have some control over venue, because they want to avoid venues that are known to award larger payouts to injury victims.

If You Don’t Follow Venue or Jurisdiction Rules

A judge holding a gavel in the courtroom

They may seem like very technical points, but failure to follow proper venue and jurisdiction rules can damage or even kill your personal injury case.

When a defendant receives a complaint (the document that starts a lawsuit), they have options. They can answer the complaint if they want. That answer would then move the case along toward discovery of evidence and trial.

If a defendant finds a problem with venue or jurisdiction, though, they can use that problem to get your complaint thrown out by the judge. For example, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) outlines several ways that a complaint can get dismissed.

The first three ways a complaint can get dismissed are:

  1. No subject matter jurisdiction
  2. No personal jurisdiction
  3. Improper venue

Some federal district court judges, when faced with a motion to dismiss on these grounds, may give you another chance to amend your complaint and try again. But they may not. If they don’t, then your complaint is dismissed and you may lose your right to sue.

Make Sure the Facts and the Law Are on Your Side

When you are filing a civil case for personal injury or anything else, it’s not enough to just be right. You need good facts to win your lawsuit. But if you don’t follow the law and the court’s rules by bringing your lawsuit properly, you might lose anyway. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are entering a court of law.

If there are multiple courts that might have jurisdiction over your parties and/or claims, it’s best to contact a qualified attorney in your state for a free consultation to discuss these issues.

In court, rules matter. Failing to follow them can have disastrous consequences. If you or a loved one has been injured and you are considering filing a lawsuit, be careful and think things through. It costs nothing to get a professional opinion about your case.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>