What is Jurisdiction?

It seems you can sue anyone for almost anything these days – but you cannot sue them just anywhere. Before you can bring a claim against another person or entity the court that you are suing in must have jurisdiction. This seems simple enough – but like all things legal, it is more complicated than that.

There are two variations of jurisdiction: subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. You need both in order to bring a lawsuit.

Subject matter jurisdiction has to do with the court having the power to hear the type of claim you are bringing. You cannot bring a divorce action in your local magisterial district court – it does not have the legal authority to hear the case. (Only a court of common pleas can hear divorce cases.) Likewise, you cannot bring a zoning appeal in federal court. Federal court jurisdiction does not include local zoning appeals. In short, your claim must be the type of claim that the court is statutorily authorized to hear.

In addition to having subject matter jurisdiction over the type of claim, the court must also have personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The person you are suing must have some connection to the place where the court sits. If you are from California and you are in a car accident in Pennsylvania with another driver who lives in Delaware, you cannot bring suit against that driver in California since neither the other driver nor your claim has any connection to California. A California court would lack personal jurisdiction over the other driver. (You could sue in Pennsylvania (place of accident) or in Delaware (place where the other driver lives) because those states have sufficient contacts with the other driver to assert power to command his or her appearance.) Stated another way, it would be unfair to expect the other driver to appear in California because he has no connection to that forum.

In summary, jurisdiction is about power – operational power to hear the type of claim asserted and coercive power over the defendant to require him to answer in the particular place of suit. If the court finds it lacks subject matter or personal jurisdiction it will dismiss the claim and force you to bring your case in the proper forum.

– Kevin Palmer

Posted in Litigation / Personal Injury, Newsletters