Visiting Mexico, and Civil Procedure: part 1 of 4

I just returned from a lovely cruise with my spouse in the Mexican Riviera. Nothing beats the winter blues quite like a visit to the tropics. As an FYI to my readers, we found our tickets on www.lastminutecruises.com – they offer some great discounts on cruises! (Note:  I’m not getting anything to promote them.) After all, the only thing better than a fun vacation is getting a fun vacation for a good price.

On the last day of sailing, we were very lucky to spot a school of dolphins swimming through the ocean. Here is a photo I caught of these gorgeous creatures hopping happily in the water:

Dolphins in the ocean

During the trip, we stopped in four ports. The first port was Puerto Vallarta, where we enjoyed humpback whale watching on a Zodiac:

Whale fins, and another whale blowing water to the right

This is Banderas Bay, home to humpback whale breeding grounds. The males compete for the attention of females, and can be quite active. We saw one whale jump completely out of the water! Two male whales got into an actual fight over a female, and were slamming into one another. Kind of like a Friday night at a bar. Our guide put a microphone under the water, and we were able to listen to whale song. The males sing romantic songs to attract the females.

Did you know that whale poop is an important fertilizer for ocean plant life? Sadly, climate change is reducing rates of reproduction for whales, as fewer females will come to reproduce when the oceans are not the right temperatures. Fewer whale births means a shrinking whale population and less whale poop, which means less fertilizer for ocean plants, which means fewer fish in the ocean. Our knowledgeable guide urged people to avoid leaving trash on the beach, as plastic and other inorganic trash which gets into the ocean kills a lot of sea life.

During the trip, I also took advantage of having awesome scenery by which to work on my books. While working in the ship’s library with a sweet ocean view, I met a fellow passenger who also travelled a lot, and we talked about working while on the road.

My fellow cruising freelancer asked me the following question, out of curiosity:  What happens, legally speaking, if someone gets into a legal dispute because they were injured in an accident away from home? In other words, if a plaintiff and a defendant are from two different places, which side’s local court will hear the case? So, I decided to go over this question in this series of four posts, as a bit of legal education for laypersons (laypersons are people without a background in law).

This question brings up rules about personal jurisdiction and venue. The body of law which governs jurisdictional and venue matters is known as “civil procedure”. This subject is about how lawsuits work, rather than why they happen. Nicknamed “civ pro”, it is standard fare for first year law students.

License plates from different states

“Personal jurisdiction” is the authority that a court has to make decisions involving a particular person. “Venue” means the most convenient or otherwise appropriate court location for a case to be heard.

Personal jurisdiction and long-arm statutes:

Long arm reaching out

In order for a plaintiff to sue in their home state against an out-of-state defendant, the court in the plaintiff’s state must have personal jurisdiction over the defendant. If the defendant is physically present in the plaintiff’s home state, the state’s court will have personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

What if the defendant is not physically present in the plaintiff’s home state? In that instance, state laws known as “long-arm” statutes can give courts in the state personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant – if the defendant has what are called sufficient “minimum contacts” with the state. Having sufficient minimum contacts with a state means that someone has close enough ties with a state such that it is considered fair for that state’s court to have personal jurisdiction over them in a lawsuit. For example, someone can have sufficient minimum contacts with a state if they do things like visiting that state, or if they regularly do business in that state.

So if someone has visits or has regular contact with another state, does that mean that they can be sued for anything in that state? It depends. The degree of the contacts matters.

For example, let’s say that Dan (our defendant) is driving from California to visit a friend in Washington. While he is passing through Oregon; he gets into an accident with Patty (our plaintiff), who is an Oregon resident. Patty believes that Dan is at fault for the accident, and sues him in an Oregon court. Dan had never visited Oregon, nor done any business there before the accident. But since Dan was driving in Oregon, he knew that an accident could happen there, and that that could lead to him getting sued there. So, a court would likely exercise personal jurisdiction over Dan in a lawsuit which arose out of that accident. This is because his driving there gave him sufficient minimum contacts with the state of Oregon for the purposes of this particular lawsuit.

However, let’s say that an amazing coincidence also happens: In digging up information on Dan so that she can sue him, Patty also realizes that Dan is the same guy who sold her a faulty phone the last time she vacationed in California. If Patty tries to sue Dan in Oregon for selling her the faulty phone, the Oregon court would find that it does not have personal jurisdiction over Dan for that lawsuit. This is because while Dan could fairly expect to be sued in Oregon if he drove there and caused an accident, he could not fairly expect to be sued in Oregon for selling someone a faulty phone in California. So, in the faulty phone case, Dan’s level of contacts with Oregon are not sufficient to subject him to personal jurisdiction. Patty will still buy a lottery ticket, though.

Multi-State Accidents: “Maybe we should take a plane instead of driving…”

Stay tuned for part 2 of 4 of this post series! In part 2, I will discuss a different scenario, where an out-of-state defendant might be subjected to broader personal jurisdiction than Dan would. I will also talk about our stop in the port of Manzanillo, Mexico, during the cruise.

As always, dear readers, thank you for following me. See you for part 2!

** Got a legal subject or question you are curious about? Email it to me at admin@freerangelaw.net. Your question may be discussed in a future blog post!

Please note that the above is offered for educational purposes, and as a means of encouraging intellectual curiosity about the law. The information presented may not take into account every exception, variation, or complication which could apply to someone’s legal matters. Accordingly, nothing in this post or blog is ever intended as, nor should be construed by or relied upon by anyone, as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney who can give you assistance specific to your needs.

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