Jurisdiction and Venue: Where to file a case

Jurisdiction

There are limits to the legal authority of each court to hear and decide a case. For a court to be able to decide a case, it has to have jurisdiction.
Before you file your lawsuit, you need to figure out which court has:

More than one court may have jurisdiction over a certain case.

Note: You cannot sue the federal government in state court. You can only sue the federal government or a federal agency in federal court.

Personal jurisdiction
The most common way to have personal jurisdiction over a person, a business or an organization is by suing where that person lives, or, for a business or organization, where they do business. 

In general, all California superior courts have jurisdiction over a person that lives in California or can be found in California, and businesses or organizations that do business in California.

So, as long as you are suing someone who lives in California or a company or organization that does business here, the superior court has personal jurisdiction.

Subject-matter jurisdiction
There are three types of subject matter jurisdiction:

  • General Jurisdiction, which means that a court has the ability to hear and decide a wide range of cases. Unless a law or constitutional provision denies them jurisdiction, courts of general jurisdiction can handle any kind of case. The California superior courts are general jurisdiction courts.
  • Limited Jurisdiction, which means that a court has restrictions on the cases it can decide. Small claims court is a court of limited jurisdiction. It can only hear and decide cases that claim damages of $10,000 or less. Limited civil courts can only hear and decide cases for up to $25,000.  While these are heard in California superior courts, the judge has to follow the jurisdictional limits in these cases. 
  • Exclusive Jurisdiction, which means that only a particular court can decide a case. For example, bankruptcy court is a court with exclusive subject matter jurisdiction. A person can only file a bankruptcy action in a federal bankruptcy court. State courts have no jurisdiction in bankruptcy cases.

The types of cases discussed in this website are almost all cases you can file in your superior court because it has subject matter jurisdiction.

Venue

While jurisdiction says in what state and what court you file your lawsuit, “venue” is the county where you file your action.
Usually, venue is in the county where:

  • The person you are suing lives or does business (if you are suing a business or organization); or
  • The dispute arose, like where an accident happened, or where a contract was entered into or broken.


It is possible to have a situation where more than one county is the proper venue for you to file your lawsuit. For example, back to the car accident scenario: If the driver that hit you lives in Los Angeles county, the owner of the car lives in Orange County, and the accident happened in Riverside county, you can choose which of those three counties (L.A., Orange County or Riverside) to file your lawsuit in.


You can read more about venue in different types of cases in the California Code of Civil Procedure sections 392 through 403.

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