What is Personal Jurisdiction?

Personal jurisdiction means power over a party.  In the United States, personal jurisdiction tells us which court, in which state, has power over a defendant.  For example, if Patty sues David in New York, we need to know whether a New York court has the authority to cause David to appear in court and to enter a judgment against him.   If David is from another state and has no connection with New York, the New York court probably lacks personal jurisdiction over David.  Patty would have to sue him in a different state.

Personal jurisdiction is different from subject matter jurisdiction because subject matter jurisdiction tells us whether a court has the power to hear a certain type of case.  For example, if parties are diverse, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, then a federal court should have jurisdiction over the case.  But this does not tell us whether a federal court in New York has power over the parties in the case.  If there is no personal jurisdiction in New York, then the plaintiff must choose a court in a different state that does have personal jurisdiction.

General vs. Specific Jurisdiction

General jurisdiction means a state where a persona can be sued for any claim, regardless of where the actions underlying the claim occurred.  General jurisdiction exists in a state where the defendant is “home”.   For example, if David lives in Pennsylvania, then Pennsylvania will have personal jurisdiction over David for actions he commits anywhere.  For example, if David commits a tort in New York, and plaintiff chooses to sue David in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania court will have power over David.   The plaintiff can always sue David in Pennsylvania because David is at home in Pennsylvania and the court has general jurisdiction over him.   Of course, there might be reasons to transfer the case to New York but that is a different topic.

Rules for general jurisdiction over natural persons and business entities are different.  A natural person is home in his state of residence.

An incorporated business entity is at home in its state of incorporation and the place of its principal place of business – – usually its headquarters.  For example, if a company is incorporated in Delaware (Delaware is  a favorite place to form a company) and its headquarters is in California, both Delaware and California will have general jurisdiction over the company.

Other entities have different rules.  For partnerships and Limited Liability Companies, the entities will be at home in every state in which a partner or member lives.  For example, if a partnership has ten partners in ten different states, the partnership will be subject to general jurisdiction in each state.

Specific jurisdiction means personal jurisdiction based on a defendant’s contacts with the state.  For example, if David is a resident of Pennsylvania, New York cannot have general jurisdiction over him.  However, if David commits a tortious act in New York, then a plaintiff injured by David in New York should be able to demonstrate that a New York court has specific jurisdiction over David, based on his tortious conduct in New York.

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