Choosing the right court in which to file a personal injury or other civil law case can be tricky—so tricky, in fact, that many law schools devote an entire class to this one subject. Which court is the “right court” depends on two major factors: jurisdiction and venue.
The law of jurisdiction determines whether the court has the power to hear a particular case. For a particular court to be an appropriate place to file a case, two types of jurisdiction must exist: personal jurisdiction and subject-matter jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction asks, “Does this court have the power to make and enforce a judgment over the people involved in this case?” Subject-matter jurisdiction asks, “Does this court have the power to make a decision on the topic this case covers?” For a particular court to have jurisdiction over a particular case, the answer to both these questions must be “yes.”
Of the two, subject-matter jurisdiction is usually easier to determine. A state’s constitution usually gives broad powers to the state’s general courts to hear a wide range of legal cases. The majority of personal injury cases fall into this category and may be heard by state courts, especially if the court obviously has personal jurisdiction over both the plaintiff and the defendant. Some cases, like bankruptcy cases, can only be heard in special courts designed to hear those cases.
In addition to subject-matter jurisdiction, a court must have personal jurisdiction over the parties to the case. A court gets personal jurisdiction in one of three ways: in personam, in rem, or quasi in rem.
In personam jurisdiction is jurisdiction over the individuals involved in the case. If a person lives in the state or regularly does business in the state, the state’s courts most likely have personal jurisdiction over him.
In rem jurisdiction is only used in cases where a piece of property is in dispute. An example would be a case in which two people are arguing over who owns a piece of land or whether one of them has a certain legal right to use that land. In that case, a court would have “in rem” jurisdiction if it is in the state, county, or other place where the property is located.
A court may have in rem jurisdiction even if it does not have in personam jurisdiction. For instance, if two family members who live in Vermont are arguing over which of them owns forty acres of land in New York, they may bring their case in the New York courts since the property is located in New York, even if neither one lives or does business in New York.
Finally, “quasi in rem” jurisdiction is a way for courts to get personal jurisdiction by making reference to land. Basically, a court has quasi in rem jurisdiction if one of the parties to the case owns a piece of property in that court’s territory, even if the case is not about the property itself.
The “catch” to quasi in rem jurisdiction is that any judgment the court makes has to reference the property. For instance, suppose an injured plaintiff sues a defendant in New York, claiming the defendant hit her with his car while the plaintiff was vacationing in Vermont. Suppose further that the defendant is a Vermont resident, but he owns property in New York. The New York court can claim quasi in rem jurisdiction over the defendant in Vermont, but if that court awards the plaintiff damages, those damages have to be related to the property the defendant owns in some way (such as the court ordering the defendant’s New York property to be seized until he pays the plaintiff).
Once a court determines that it has jurisdiction, it must also determine whether the case has been filed in the proper venue, or the proper court among all the courts that have jurisdiction. Often, venue is not an issue, but a party who has difficulty traveling to a particular court, has worked in a particular court, or who does not feel that she will get a fair trial in a particular court may ask for a change of venue.
Choosing the right jurisdiction and venue is important, because if either one is incorrect, the case may be dismissed or “thrown out,” and the plaintiff will have to start over again in the court that does have the proper jurisdiction and venue. Jurisdiction and venue, therefore, are often challenged in a motion to dismiss or are mentioned in a defendant’s affirmative defenses.