Often time you will hear people discuss “forum shopping” when it comes to filing lawsuits. This is the apprehension that it is better to file a lawsuit in some places compared to others. There is
definitely some truth to this, especially in places like Maryland where one or two places tend to be the preferred stop for personal injury lawsuits. However, to understand the concept of “forum shopping,” you have to understand the concept of a “forum” in the first place, which entails knowing the difference between personal jurisdiction and venue.
Personal Jurisdiction is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle when putting together a lawsuit. Really all it boils down to is a court’s ability to exercise its power over an entity, whether that is a person, business, trust, etc. For example, say you are a Maryland resident, it would feel unfair if an Oklahoma court could render a judgment over you if you have no connections to that state. That is where the doctrine of jurisdiction comes into play: it is all about the court’s ability to bring you under its power.
So what gives a court the ability to exercise jurisdiction over you? Contacts. Specifically, contacts with that court’s geographic jurisdiction. One of the easiest contacts a court can use is residency or domicile. If you are a resident of a state or intend to make your home there, it makes sense that you have “submitted yourself to the sovereign” that is that state, meaning their courts can exercise jurisdiction over you. However, jurisdiction can also come into play if you have contacts within a certain location other than your home state. So say you are a Maryland resident, but you run a business in Oklahoma and spend a couple of months of the year there running it. Then it would seem more appropriate for Oklahoma courts to exercise their power over you since you operate a business within its borders.
Personal Jurisdiction and Personal Injury
In personal injury cases, personal jurisdiction only matters for the defendant. The American justice system allows the plaintiff to choose his or her forum, meaning that they can submit to the jurisdiction of any forum so long as that forum also has personal jurisdiction over the defendant. This is where the notion of “forum shopping” comes into play. A plaintiff will obviously pick the forum they feel is most strategically beneficial for their case. Take a slight variation on our example above: say you were injured in a car accident by someone who was a Maryland resident but also had substantial business contacts in Oklahoma. Even though you could sue them in Oklahoma, you would probably sue them in Maryland because of convenience, especially if your comparison of jurisdictions led you to believe you think you would get a better shake in Maryland.
Venue should be thought of as a subset of jurisdiction. While personal jurisdiction is crucial to a court actually having the power to make a judgment, venue is more concerned about geographical convenience. While each state is thought of as its own jurisdiction, there are multiple “venues” within each state where a case could be heard. For example, within the jurisdiction of Maryland, there are 24 separate venues (23 counties and Baltimore City.) So after it is determined that a State has personal jurisdiction over the defendant, you also have to figure out in which venue proceedings will take place.
Determining venue often looks similar to the process of figuring out personal jurisdiction, though the rules are not as strict since a state can exercise the same laws regardless of the selected venue. For example, take a car accident case that occurred in Worcester County, Maryland with a defendant who lives in Baltimore City. Even though venue might be proper in Baltimore City, chances are all the witnesses and evidence will be in Worcester County. It would be a huge pain for all the witnesses to have to travel to Baltimore for the trial, and it would be even more annoying to haul the evidence all the way from Worcester County as well. So at the end of the day, even if the case was properly filed in Baltimore City, the defendant could ask the court to move the case to Worcester County purely on convenience grounds. Because Maryland law still governs regardless of which venue is ultimately selected, personal jurisdiction is not a concern.
Venue and Forum Shopping
Venue is incredibly important for personal injury cases. In states like Maryland, there are often disparities between the amounts that juries award in urban areas versus those awarded from rural juries. That being the case, plaintiffs’ attorneys always want to file their cases in the most plaintiff friendly venue possible (Baltimore City or Prince George’s County in Maryland).