Suing a Defendant in Your State

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If the person or business you want to sue resides or does business in your state, you have to decide which small claims court should hear your suit.

Of all the aspects of small claims court that differ from state to state, the rules on where to sue seem to be the most variable. Some states let you sue only in the district or county where the defendant resides. Others also allow you to sue where an accident occurred, a contract was broken or originally signed, merchandise was purchased, a corporation does business, and so on.

You'll need to refer to the rules for your local small claims court to determine where to sue. The first thing you will want to look at is what type of political subdivisions (judicial district, precinct, city, county) your state uses to define the geographical boundaries of its small claims courts. Next, you will want to carefully study your local rules in order to understand the criteria used to define which district a particular lawsuit should be brought in (for example, suits can always be brought where a defendant lives). If this information is not set out in the information sheet, call the clerk of the court and ask. Often you may be eligible to sue in more than one judicial district (for example, where a defendant lives or where a traffic accident occurred). If you have a choice, you'll obviously want to pick the court that is most convenient for you.

In a few states you can sue for larger amounts in some areas. In some states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, you can sue for higher amounts in certain counties. Obviously, if yours is a larger claim, you'll want to see whether you are eligible to sue in one of these locations. 

General Rules on Where You Can Sue

Depending on the specific rules of your state, you can generally sue in any one of the following political subdivisions:

  • the judicial district in which the defendant resides or has a place of business at the time you file your lawsuit
  • the judicial district in which the contract underlying your lawsuit was supposed to be carried out
  • the judicial district in which the injury underlying your lawsuit occurred, or
  • the judicial district in which the rental property is located (for landlord-tenant security deposit disputes or evictions).

Now let's consider some typical rules about where you can sue within a state.

Where the Defendant Lives or Does Business

Because most small claims disputes are local, most plaintiffs follow the simplest provisions of the rules about where you can sue. They sue individual defendants in the judicial district where they live and business defendants (corporations, LLCs, or unincorporated businesses) in the judicial district where they do business.

EXAMPLE: Downhill Skier lives in City County, but also owns a mountain cabin in Snowy County, where he spends several months a year. Late one snowy afternoon, Downhill drives his new Porsche from the ski slopes to his ultramodern, rustic cabin. Turning into his driveway, he executes a bad slalom skid right into Woodsey Carpenter's elderly but much-loved pickup. Where can Woodsey properly sue? Obviously, Woodsey can sue in City County where Downhill has his permanent address, and he can probably also sue in Snowy County where Downhill's cabin is located, on the theory that Downhill also lives there. In many states, Woodsey is also eligible to sue Downhill in Snowy County because small claims cases may be filed where the damage occurred.

Where the Contract Was Signed

Most states assume that the place where a written contract is signed is also where it will be carried out. Therefore, you can usually sue where the contract was signed, if a problem develops.

Arizona, California, Indiana, and a few other states are more thorough. In these states, a suit can be brought either where the contract was signed or where the contract was to be performed. This is good common sense, as the law assumes that, if people enter into a contract to perform something at a certain location, it is probably reasonably convenient to both. If, for example, Downhill gets a telephone installed in his mountain cabin, or has the fender on his Porsche fixed by a Snowy County mechanic, or has a cesspool put in at his cabin, or agrees to sit (and pay) for a portrait in Snowy County, he can be sued in Snowy County if he fails to keep his part of the bargain. Of course, as we learned above, Downhill can also be sued in City County, where he resides permanently.

EXAMPLE: John Gravenstein lives in Sonoma County, California, where he owns an apple orchard. He signs a contract to buy spare parts from Acme Mechanical Apple Picker Co., an international corporation with offices in San Francisco, New York, Paris, and Guatemala City. John signs the contract in Sonoma County. The parts are sent to John from San Francisco via UPS. They turn out to be defective. After trying and failing to reach a settlement with Acme, John wants to know if he can sue them in Sonoma County. Yes. Even though Acme doesn't have a business office in Sonoma County and they performed no action there in connection with their agreement to sell John the spare parts, the contract was signed there.

If you have a choice of judicial districts, pick the most convenient one. As you should now understand, there may be two, three, or more judicial districts in which you can properly file your case. In this situation, simply choose the one that serves you best. As long as that district is proper, you have no obligation to pick one the defendant prefers.

Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to determine the location where a contract was entered into–particularly when the people who made the contract did so from different locations. If you enter a contract over the phone or online, for example, there could be an argument that the contract was entered into either where you are or where the other party is. Rather than trying to learn and apply all the intricacies of contract law, your best bet is probably to sue in the place most convenient to you, claiming that the contract was made there. On the other hand, if someone sues you at the wrong end of the state and you believe there is a good argument that the contract was formed where you live (that is, where you accepted the other party's offer), write to the court as soon as you have been served and ask that the case be dismissed. 

Where the Injury Occurred

Most states allow you to sue in the judicial district where the act or omission underlying the lawsuit occurred. "Act or omission" is a shorthand term that lumps together things that lead to lawsuits like automobile accidents, warranty disputes, and landlord-tenant disputes, for the purpose of deciding where you're allowed to sue. This means that if you are in a car accident, a dog bites you, a tree falls on your head, or a neighbor floods your cactus garden, you can sue in the judicial district where the event or injury occurred, even if this is a different district from the one in which the defendant resides.

EXAMPLE: Addison is returning to his home in Indianapolis from Bloomington, Indiana, following an Indiana University basketball game. At the same time, Lenore is rushing to Bloomington from her home in Brown County, Indiana, more than 40 miles west of Bloomington. Lenore runs a red light and demolishes Addison's Toyota near the Indiana University gym in downtown Bloomington, which is in Monroe County. After parking his car and taking a bus home, Addison tries to figure out where he can sue Lenore if they can't work out a fair settlement. Unfortunately for him, he can't sue in Indianapolis, as Lenore doesn't reside there and the accident didn't happen there. Addison would have to sue either in Monroe County, where his property was damaged, or in Brown County, where Lenore lives. Luckily for Addison, Monroe County is just an hour from Indianapolis.

by: Ralph Warner

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