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Personal Jurisdiction: How to Determine Where a Person Can Be Sued

Courts in the United States must have two kinds of jurisdiction to hear a case, personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction refers to whether a court can hear a case on a particular subject and is usually pretty clear. Personal jurisdiction, on the other hand, refers to whether a court has power over the person being sued and can be difficult to determine. The basic concept behind determining personal jurisdiction is evaluating whether courts in that state have a vested interest in you and a right to make binding decisions over you.

Personal Jurisdiction -- The Four Basic Types

Personal jurisdiction has four major categories in case law, and while three of them are fairly easy to understand, the fourth,"minimum contacts," can be difficult to determine:

  • Presence: Being served with a copy of the summons and complaint while physically present in the forum state in sufficient to give a court in that state jurisdiction over the person who was served. That means that even if you were only just passing through the state for a few minutes, if you are properly served, you can be sued in that state.
  • Domicile/Place of Business: Domicile or residence in a state is enough to give courts in that state jurisdiction over you. This also applies to wherever you establish your place of business. In practice, this means that even if the incident took place in another state or even in another country, you can always be sued in the state in which you have established residence or maintain your place of business.
  • Consent: Not surprisingly, you can simply consent to a court having personal jurisdiction over you. Consent comes in two basic forms, express and implied. Express consent can be given by voluntarily appearing before the court and submitting yourself to its jurisdiction. This means that even if a court otherwise didn't have power over you, by showing up, you can grant the court that power. Consent also can be implied, and one of the most common forms of implied consent is by driving on the roads of that state. Courts consider you to have given implied consent to the laws regulating roads, and thus if you have a car accident on the road in that state, a court has personal jurisdiction over you.
  • Minimum Contacts: A court can also have personal jurisdiction over you if you maintain certain "minimum contacts" with the state where a court resides.Minimum contacts is somewhat of a catchall where a court decides that you've had enough interaction with a state to justify having personal jurisdiction over you. Below is the basic test courts use to determine whether you've established minimum contacts with a state.

Personal Jurisdiction -- Minimum Contacts With a State

The Supreme Court set forth a basic test to determine whether a particular person has established minimum contacts with that state:

  • Continuous, Systematic Contacts and Related Lawsuits: Jurisdiction is permissible when the defendant's activity in the forum is continuous and systematic and the cause of action is related to that activity.
  • Continuous, Systematic Contacts and Unrelated Lawsuits: A court may still assert personal jurisdiction over a defendant whose continuous activities in the forum are sufficiently substantial and of such a nature as to make the state's assertion of jurisdiction reasonable, even if the cause of action is unrelated to those activities. A practical example of this would be a business that does a lot of business in a state, but is sued for something unrelated to that business.
  • Sporadic or Casual Activity and Unrelated Lawsuits: If a defendant's activity is only sporadic or casual, then a court does not have personal jurisdiction over a cause of action that is unrelated to that sporadic activity.
  • Sporadic or Casual Activity and Related Lawsuits: Even a defendant whose activity in the state is sporadic, or consists only of a single act, may be subject to the personal jurisdiction of a court in that state when the lawsuit relates to that activity or act.

Jurisdiction over Property -- In Rem Jurisdiction

A final form or jurisdiction is called in rem jurisdiction, which gives a court jurisdiction over things (usually property) as opposed to people. This relates to personal jurisdiction because even if a court couldn't otherwise have personal jurisdiction over you, it may have jurisdiction over a piece of property you own. This means that if you own property in another state, even though you could not otherwise be sued there, the court does have jurisdiction over your property which in effect gives it power over you.

However, in rem jurisdiction is considerably more limited than personal jurisdiction, because the lawsuit generally has to concern the property itself and damages are often limited to the fair market value of the property. This means that in practice, buying a house in another state would grant a court jurisdiction to hear a dispute regarding that house, but not necessarily regarding other disputes that involve you.

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