The man on the other end of the line was calling from a California number. He made it clear that he was unhappy when I explained that I know nothing about California law, and declined to provide the legal information and advice he wanted.
The caller was involved in a dispute with someone he identified as a Maryland-based seller. He had bought an item from her, was dissatisfied with it, and wanted to sue. He was seeking information about Maryland statutes that govern where, how and under what circumstances one party to a sales transaction can sue another party to the transaction.
Little alarm bells go off in lawyers’ heads when they think about having to defend themselves in malpractice lawsuits after they have talked to callers and provided information that they believed was clear and thorough, and after the caller acted on what he thought he heard, with unhappy results.
Misunderstandings can arise easily in verbal information exchanges. Where legal information is involved, what one party thought he said and the other thought he heard can lead to costly errors.
If the caller decides to go ahead with his planned lawsuit and decides not to retain a lawyer, he will have to deal with a venue issue. Black’s Law Dictionary defines venue as, “the proper or a possible place for the trial of a lawsuit, usually because the place has some connection with the events that have given rise to the lawsuit.”
In the caller’s situation, the seller’s location in Maryland may provide the required connection with the event, that is, a buyer’s purchase of an item that he believes to be unsatisfactory or defective.
Alternatively, could he sue in California? Possibly, because his location there might give a California court jurisdiction over a transaction that involved a resident of the state. Could he sue, for example, in Wyoming? Possibly, if the seller is also doing business in Wyoming or the buyer used the product there, or some other condition exists which would provide the required connection.
Where there is a choice of jurisdiction to file a suit, venue – where to sue – can be more important than the minor detail it sounds like. Suppose Maryland courts have a reputation for being very generous in awarding compensation to plaintiffs, while California courts are more likely to conclude that the plaintiff should have read the fine print before reaching for his wallet. Given a choice, a buyer would probably want to sue in Maryland.
The next issue the buyer faces is the amount of compensation he seeks from the seller. In Maryland, there is a $25,000 limit for lawsuit claims in District Court. If the claim exceeds that amount, the plaintiff will file his case in Circuit Court. If either party requests a jury trial, a case filed in District Court will be transferred to Circuit Court, as district courts do not impanel juries.
Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at email@example.com.