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How to Obtain Personal Jurisdiction

4. What is “personal jurisdiction” in a civil suit?

Personal jurisdiction means that the court has authority not only over the subject matter of the case but also over the parties to the case. This is also known as “in personam jurisdiction”, or jurisdiction over the person. In some instances a court cannot establish jurisdiction over a person, but it can establish jurisdiction over real or personal property located within its geographical boundaries. This is known as “in rem jurisdiction”. In practice a court obtains personal jurisdiction over the plaintiff when she files the legal action. By filing a lawsuit in a court, the plaintiff voluntarily submits to or grants the court personal jurisdiction over her. The plaintiff must generally allege in the complaint the grounds for the court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant. Otherwise, the defendant may voluntarily agree to be subject to the court’s jurisdiction. Of course, the defendant is free to contest a court’s personal jurisdiction. In fact, court procedure allows a defendant to appear before the court with the sole purpose of contesting personal jurisdiction without being subjected to jurisdiction in the process.

•    Note: Personal jurisdiction, in this discussion, applies to civil cases. In criminal cases, a court only has personal jurisdiction over a party who commits a crime in that state. Other states will often extradite individuals charged with crimes to the state in which charges are filed.

Service of Process

The primary method of obtaining personal jurisdiction over a defendant is through service of process. This means that the court must deliver notice of the litigation (a summons) to the defendant. The summons provides notice to the defendant to appear in court. The plaintiff must also include a copy of the complaint at the time of delivering the summons. In some circumstances, a plaintiff may serve process on a defendant without personally delivering a summons. If, for example, a defendant is known to be in an area but cannot be found, court procedure may allow for the effective delivery of notice  by other methods. This may include delivery to the last known address, delivery to immediate family members, and publication in a newspaper of general circulation.

•    Discussion: A recent state case allowed for service of process via Facebook message. Do you believe that service of process should be delivered personally to a defendant? Or do you support alternative methods of notification, such as electronic posting? Do you think alternative methods of providing notice of litigation affect an individual’s due process rights?

The Long-Arm Statute

In order to serve the summons on the defendant, she must generally be within the state at the time of delivery. There is, however, a common exception that allows a court to serve process on a defendant located outside of the state’s boundaries. This is known as the “long-arm statute”. Limitations on the long-arm statute are as follows:

•    Due Process – Serving process on a defendant is subject to the constitutional right to due process of law. As such, a state’s long-arm statute must meet constitutional due process requirements.

•    Minimum Contacts – To meet constitutional standards, the long-arm statute can only be used to serve process on a defendant who is located outside of the state if she has “minimum contacts” with the state. Minimum contacts means that the defendant has sufficient contact with the state to not “offend the notions of fair play and substantial justice”.

What is Minimum Contacts?

A court may be able to legally serve a summons on a defendant who is out-of-state if one of the following are met:

•    Resident of State – The defendant is a resident of the same state as the court.

•    Instate Activity – The defendant committed the action within the state that is the subject of the litigation. The defendant may have committed a tort or entered into the business deal that was the subject of the litigation.

•    Owns Property – The defendant may own property located in the state that is the subject of the litigation. This is known as “in rem” jurisdiction. This would include a lawsuit challenging property ownership rights.

•    Voluntary Submission – The defendant may voluntarily submit to personal jurisdiction in the court. She can do this by written waiver or by just showing up to court and not contesting jurisdiction.

•    Presence in the State – Remember, the court may serve process on a defendant if she is present in the state for any reason. The primary exception is that a party can appear in court for the purpose of contesting personal jurisdiction and not subject herself to the court’s authority by doing so.

•    Registered in the State – A business is subject to jurisdiction in its state of incorporation or any state in which the defendant business is registered.

•    Discussion: Suppose a defendant technically committed the tort in a state, but really has very little contact or ties with the state otherwise. For example, Dave builds a product in Georgia and ships it to California. The product is defective and hurts the purchaser. Dave technically caused harm in California, but does not otherwise have any contacts with the state. Is this sufficient minimum contacts for the California court to exercise jurisdiction over Dave?

•    Practice Question: Claire lives in Georgia and purchases a pair of shoes online from Waylon’s Shoe Sales. Waylon’s is located in California. Waylon’s only has physical locations in California, but he sells via the Internet throughout the United States. He does, however, routinely employ sales agents to attend trade shows and make sales calls in every state. When Claire’s shoes arrive, she wears them out to dinner. On the way out of the house, the heel of the show breaks and Claire falls to the ground. She suffers a torn ligament in her knee. She plans on suing Waylon’s in Georgia’s superior court for negligent manufacture of the product. What personal jurisdiction issues exist in this case?

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