Car Law A to Z: J is for Jurisdiction

OK.  You have a case involving a vehicle.  It has to be resolved in court.  Hmmm…but which court do you choose?  Which court should you choose?  How do you decide?  Hmm again…..

Welcome to the concept of jurisdiction.  Jurisdiction involves the issue of whether a court has the legal authority to hear certain cases or controversies.  Without getting all complicated and hyper-legal (which is quite easy to do since the concept of jurisdiction gets plenty of discussion and class time in law school and is quite important for the Bar exam) suffice it to say that jurisdiction can be an important factor in assessing the viability of pursuing your claims in court.

Federal v State:  For purposes of simplification, to pursue a claim in federal court your case must involve at least one of the following:  (1) total diversity of parties (meaning no Plaintiff and Defendant are residents of the same state) AND amount in controversy over $75,000.00 or (2) a federal law or question is involved (usually means you are alleging a violation of federal law).  Federal courthouses are often the real fancy courthouses where no camera phones are allowed, all persons must be screened and present a picture ID, and there is far less traffic (foot traffic and vehicle traffic) than state court.  Federal courts at the trial court level are listed as “United States District Court for the ______ District of _______” or something similar.  Most vehicle-related cases are not properly pleaded in federal court and even those that can be placed in federal court are likely better pursued in state court.  Why?  The reasons are too lengthy and some a bit obtuse for me to explain here.  Trust me on this one and/or contact a lawyer.

In state court you can bring virtually any kind of civil action.  In North Carolina state courts there are three levels of trial court jurisdiction:  Small Claims a/k/a Magistrate’s Court, District Court, and Superior Court.

  • Small Claims Court covers cases in which the amount in dispute is $10,000.00 or less.
  • District Court jurisdiction is generally for cases in which you are seeking in excess of $10,000.00 but not more than $25,000.00.
  • Superior Court is for cases where the alleged damages exceed $25,000.00.

In North Carolina the state courts are listed as “______County Court” and the courthouses, depending on the day and the city, can be swarming with people and traffic due to the large dockets for matters ranging from criminal cases, family law matters, traffic tickets, landlord-tenant issues, etc.  Most of the vehicle cases I pursue in court are pursued in Superior Court although I do handle cases in Small Claims and District Courts when appropriate.  There is no jury in Small Claims Court and the litigation and trial procedures in Superior Court are more formal than the other two levels of court.  District Court cases are typically required to go to non-binding arbitration before they can proceed to trial.  Just some further food for thought…

In addition to considering which level of court you should file your case you must also assess the following:  in which county to file, which claims to file, how long you have to file your claims (a/k/a statute of limitations), who to sue, how to name the parties to your lawsuit, and the list goes on.  These details and decisions are just part of what lawyers must consider for their respective clients.  Having a lawyer navigate these and other thorny issues for you is part of the value you receive by having competent legal representation.  Too often people handling legal matters on their own get themselves into predicaments that lead to bad results.

In essence, when you have made the decision to go to court do not try to figure this stuff out on your own.  Contact a lawyer.  Even if you decide to handle the matter on your own at least you will have done so with better information and understanding.



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