OK push has come to shove. Your lawyer says, “You gotta sue.  No options left”.  So where do you go to get the S.O.B.s who have beaten you out of your fee, stolen your image and deprived your kids of their tuition?

Lawyers often throw around two important legal words not realizing that the terms are not within the vocabulary of civilians.  Specifically, “jurisdiction” and “venue”.  Contrary to the views of some un-trained bloggers, the terms are not interchangeable.
Simply put, jurisdiction means power.  A court with jurisdiction has the power and authority to decide a case.  Venue means “place” – as in which geographic county, state or district the court with jurisdiction is physically located, like St. Paul, MN.

Law students take extensive procedural courses and review many cases which deal with the issue of which courts have jurisdiction in different matters. Occasionally more than one court can hear a case, either or even both having jurisdiction.  Jurisdiction may be determined by the type of case.  For example a copyright case MUST be brought in a Federal Court as only the federal courts have jurisdiction.  Where the parties live, do business, transact business and/or where the events sued upon occurred (where infringement took place) may also determine jurisdiction and/or venue.  In contract matters, both sides should and typically do, agree and insert a paragraph designating the proper jurisdiction and venue in the event of a dispute.  A more thorough discussion would take a few hundred pages and has led many a law student to the bottle.

Courts, as well as federal and state laws, discourage potential litigants from “forum shopping”. (No we don’t mean the stores at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas)  Rather, there are limitations imposed as to where one can bring suit.  Sometimes you may have the option of bringing a case in federal court in say, your home town of Butte, Montana or the hometown of the company you are suing and/or where the infringement took place like New York City or Los Angeles.  While it is counter-intuitive, as a photographer or creative person you may be better, much better off, suing in the defendant’s backyard.

Here are some typical scenarios where if a choice is “available” to you, your attorney may advise suing in the defendant’s home town rather than your own.  This may be true even though the cost of suing locally is usually far less and more convenient:

1.  You can sue in State Y because the defendant does business there and the laws in State Y are better than the laws in State X (where you live or work) for you and/or your type of case.

2.  Judges/juries tend to give more money in State Y than in State X.

3.  Certain defenses which could be used in State X by the defendant cannot be used in State Y.

4.  State X rarely, very rarely handles cases like (yours) so you go to a state which handles them all of the time, judges are up to speed, juries understand the facts, identify with creative types and the laws applicable in State Y are clear and  “plaintiff friendly”.

5.  There are other reasons, circumstances etc. and you can’t always just go to another state to pick your court.  But in many cases involving advertising, models, photography, artwork and the rights of creatives, the nature of the beast is that “State Y” is most often New York or California.  A jury in say LA or NY County, likely has members who work in the arts, show business, advertising, broadcasting, publishing or have spouses or relatives who do.  The importance of jury identification with a plaintiff and an understanding of the relevant industry can not be underestimated.

6.  Big city judges and juries tend to award more money to successful litigants than small town judges/juries.

7.  It is often cheaper and easier to find and hire lawyers and/or experts knowledgeable in the relevant areas in big cities than in rural settings.

Now let’s pause for a moment for context.  Say you had a case that dealt with a dispute arising out the purchase and sale of faulty slot machines and a bogus service contract that was tied to those machines.  What if your case dealt with an allegedly faulty grain elevator which caused you to lose fifty percent of your harvested wheat crop?  How about a complex personal injury, product liability case arising out of an incident and explosion on an off shore oil rig?  In those cases, you’d likely want to see those trials take place in Las Vegas, Omaha and New Orleans respectively.

Bottom line, many cases have been lost or “devalued” when the wrong jurisdiction or venue choice was made.  Most often your choice is limited.  Only a competent attorney can advise you as to A. whether you even have a choice as to jurisdiction and/or venue and B. what that choice should be.  Do not try this at home.  Do not rely on amateurs.  Do not rely on anyone other than a competent attorney who can make your interest paramount in selecting your courthouse.