Ask Judge Smith

Jurisdiction and venue have sway over court powers

J. Layne Smith

Q. Judge Smith, what does personal jurisdiction mean? Robert

A. Personal jurisdiction is a court’s authority over you. 

If you reside in Florida, the Sunshine State has personal jurisdiction over you. Indeed, you expect to bring and defend lawsuits in Florida but not in other states. 

Other states’ courts lack personal jurisdiction over you unless you:

  1. Own real property there,
  2. Commit a crime there,
  3. Breach a contract there,
  4. Commit a tort there, or
  5. Conduct enough business there. 

Be forewarned that if a plaintiff sues you in another state, you must immediately assert the court’s lack of personal jurisdiction over you. Otherwise, you’ll waive the defense. Ignoring a lawsuit or responding to one without the benefit of legal advice will be an expensive mistake. 

Suppose you’ve never had any contact with the State of Idaho. You don’t live there, haven’t visited, or conducted business there. Suppose your arch-enemy moves to Idaho and files a lawsuit against you. An Idaho state court lacks personal jurisdiction over you. 

Suppose you cause a car accident in Jefferson County, Alabama. In that case, you can expect the plaintiff to sue you there, and an Alabama court would have personal jurisdiction over you.  

Suppose the Sheriff of Fulton County, Georgia, arrests you for possession of cocaine. The local prosecutor will charge you there, and a Georgia court would have personal jurisdiction over you. 

Q. Judge Smith, what does subject matter jurisdiction mean? Faith

A.Subject matter jurisdiction is the court’s authority to hear and decide particular cases. A state court derives its subject matter jurisdiction from the state’s constitution and statutes. A court either has subject matter jurisdiction, or it doesn’t. Create Free Account

Florida’s county courts have subject matter jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases, civil cases involving $30,000 or less, violations of city and county ordinances, and anything else authorized by statute. Florida’s circuit courts have subject matter jurisdiction over everything else. 

For example, a negligence lawsuit to recover $8,250 for property damage belongs only in the county court. Felony and family law cases belong only in the circuit court.  

Q. Judge Smith, what does venue mean? Nathan

A.Venue concerns the fairness of suing a defendant in a particular county. It governs where a lawsuit can be filed and prosecuted. Generally, by statute, a plaintiff may file a civil suit in the county where the defendant resides, commits a tort, or breaches a contract. Thus, a plaintiff may have the option of filing the claim in more than one county. 

Suppose you operate a store at the Tallahassee Mall where a shopper suffers a slip and falls. Suppose the plaintiff, who is a resident of Miami-Dade County, sues you for negligence there. By law, you can ask the judge in Miami-Dade County to transfer the case to Leon County to avoid defending the lawsuit in a distant county. 

Let’s cover a related concept—an inconvenient forum. Suppose the venue for a case properly lies in either Leon or Palm Beach counties. The plaintiff filed suit in Leon County, but 26 out of 27 witnesses live in Palm Beach County. The defendant may move to transfer the case to Palm Beach County as the more convenient location to try the case.

The law of jurisdiction and venue is nuanced, and cases can turn on a single fact. I recommend getting professional help upfront. If sued, promptly notify your lawyer, insurance agent, and liability carriers and provide them with a copy of the summons and lawsuit papers. 

If you grasp these concepts, I’ve taught you a semester of civil procedure in fewer than 600 words.

The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a Circuit Judge, author, and public speaker. Send your questions to

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