Personal Jurisdiction: In Which Court Can I Sue the Defendant?

Before you file a lawsuit, be sure the court has power over the individual or business that you want to sue.

Federal and state laws grant and limit courts' jurisdiction -- that is, the power to hear and decide a particular case. To make a legally valid decision, a court must have two types of jurisdiction: personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction rules determine whether a court has power over a particular defendant, whereas subject matter jurisdiction establishes the court's power to hear the kind of case a lawsuit involves. This article describes the ways that a court can have personal jurisdiction over a defendant:

Defendant Resides or Does Business in the State

Determining that a court has personal jurisdiction over a particular defendant is easy when you file the suit in the state in which the defendant resides or does business. The nearly universal rule is that the courts in a state have personal jurisdiction over all people or businesses that are citizens of or do business in that state.

For example, you sue an Illinois citizen in an Illinois state court for breach of contract. It doesn't matter where you live or where the events leading up to the lawsuit took place, because an Illinois state court has personal jurisdiction over all citizens of Illinois.

Other Ways to Get Personal Jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction rules can be a bit stickier when you file the suit in a state other than the one in which the defendant is a citizen or does business. You can't just sue someone in your home state if the defendant doesn't live in your state, has never been in your state, and doesn't do business in your state.

Example: Debbie is a Texas citizen vacationing in Florida. While in Florida, Debbie buys what she is told are two brand new "fully loaded" computer systems at Kevin's Computer Shop. Debbie later learns that the computers are loaded with reused parts and won't perform the tasks that Kevin claimed. Debbie cannot sue Kevin in her home state of Texas. Texas has no personal jurisdiction over Kevin because Kevin is neither a citizen of nor does business in Texas.

To protect a defendant from being sued in a "hostile," possibly far-off location, personal jurisdiction rules require that facts exist that make it fair for a court to exercise power over a non-citizen. Here are standard situations in which courts have personal jurisdiction over non-citizens:

  • Defendant served while in the state. The defendant enters the state in which you filed suit after the case is filed, even if only for a short visit, and you serve the defendant with the court papers (normally a summons and complaint). (As in the children's game of "You're It," you'd have to find and "tag" the defendant with the papers while the defendant is in the state.)
  • Defendant caused a traffic accident in the state. The defendant caused a traffic accident in the state in which you've filed the lawsuit (and the case grows out of the traffic accident). All states have "motorist" statutes giving their courts power to decide cases regarding accidents on their roads, regardless of the parties' citizenship. In this case, you can serve the defendant with papers anywhere, not just in the state where the lawsuit was filed.
  • Defendant has some contact within the state. The defendant (individual or business) has engaged in at least a small but significant amount of activity that constitutes "minimum contacts" in the state in which you've filed the lawsuit (and the case involves that activity). The "minimum contacts" requirement generally means that a defendant must have enough connection to the state where a case has been filed for a judge to conclude that it's fair for the state to exercise power over the defendant. A judge would probably conclude that "minimum contacts" exist in the following situations:
    • A business with its headquarters in another state maintains a branch office, store, or warehouse in the state in which the suit is filed.
    • A business with its headquarters in another state sends mail order catalogs into the state in which the suit is filed.
    • An individual who is a citizen of another state solicits business by making phone calls to customers or publishing advertisements in the state in which the suit is filed.
    • An Internet service provider that is a citizen of another state does business with paid subscribers or takes online orders from customers in the state in which the case is filed.

Example: While on vacation in Vermont, Aura (an Ohio citizen) visits Fred's Vermont Antiques and sees what is labeled as a packet of "ancient Etruscan coins." Fred tells her they are rare and worth much more than the $5,000 he is asking for them. When Aura returns home to Ohio, she calls Fred and buys the coins. She then discovers the coins are actually worth only a few hundred dollars and wants to sue Fred. Aura will have to file the lawsuit in Vermont. Because Aura made the phone call to Fred rather than the other way around, Fred does not have enough "minimum contacts" with Ohio to support an exercise of Ohio's power over Fred.

Tip A "minimum contacts" claim is stronger when the claim relates to the purpose of the "contacts." Assume that you want to sue a non-resident business, Abel Co., in your state based on Abel's maintaining a bicycle warehouse in your state. If your claim relates to a bicycle that you picked up at the warehouse, a judge is likely to conclude that it's fair to exercise personal jurisdiction over Abel Co. and allow your suit to proceed. But if your claim against Abel Co. grows out of a totally separate problem that has nothing to do with bicycles, the judge may conclude that Abel Co. does not have enough "minimum contacts" and dismiss your case at Abel Co.'s request.

For information on whether to file your claim in federal or state court, see Nolo's article Subject Matter Jurisdiction: Should I File in Federal or State Court?

To learn more about the civil trial process, get Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman (Nolo), which will help guide you through your case.