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Livingston v. Jefferson

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    Bloomberg Law

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Livingston (Plaintiff) sued Thomas Jefferson (Defendant) in Virginia for a trespass of land located in the Orleans territory. Defendant claimed the Virginia court did not have jurisdiction.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Claims regarding trespass to land are local actions and must be tried where the land is located.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff held title to land alongside the Mississippi River in the Orleans territory. Defendant, the President of the United States, entered the land, confiscated property stored on the land, and dug up and took away cartloads of sand and clay.  Once Defendant left the Presidency, Plaintiff, a New York resident, sued Defendant, a Virginia resident, in the circuit court for the District of Virginia. Defendant claimed that he acted according to federal law and in his capacity as President. He also claimed that the Virginia court lacked jurisdiction since the land was in the Orleans territory, which had its own court. Plaintiff argued that because Defendant had been a Virginia resident at the time of the alleged trespass as well as when the suit was brought, the court in Orleans did not have jurisdiction over Defendant.

    Issue.

    Does a Virginia court have jurisdiction over a Virginia resident in a claim alleging trespass to land located outside of Virginia?

    Held.

    (Marshall, J.) No. Claims regarding trespass to land are local actions and must be tried where the land is located. This case involves a look at local versus transitory actions. Historically, all actions were local and were required to be tried in the location where the actions occurred so that the material evidence would be easier for the jury to obtain. Courts in England created a fiction that they had local jurisdiction over every incident that occurred within the country. But that fiction could be defeated when its application would create jurisdiction in a manner that the fiction was not created to protect. Such an inappropriate application would be in actions for trespass. An action for trespass is actually a local action because an investigation of title or a survey of the boundaries may be required to settle the dispute. This can only be done where the land is located. The opposing argument is that denying jurisdiction in cases like this can leave the injured party with no remedy where the alleged trespasser never travels to where the land is located and therefore is never subject to the proper court’s jurisdiction. This is a strong argument, but when the cause of action is outside the court’s reach, it is not a determinative one. The law is in favor of Defendant.

    Discussion.

    This opinion is followed in the Restatement of Judgments, § 7. In the Restatement, it is noted that even though most states follow the rule that their courts cannot award damages for trespass of land located in another state, when a judgment is erroneously entered in that circumstance it cannot be collaterally attacked as void.


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