How to File a Civil Lawsuit

If a person's legal rights are violated, the law almost always provides a remedy. After all, a legal right would not be worth much if there were not a legal remedy.

One of the most common methods for vindicating a legal right is by filing a civil lawsuit. A lawsuit is a legal action in which a person alleges that another person (or other legal entity, such as a corporation) has caused them some type of legally-recognized harm, and asks a court to provide a remedy for that harm, usually be requiring the person who caused the harm to pay money to the victim.

LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor, , Attorney at Law

If you believe you have suffered some type of legally-recognized harm, and someone else is at fault for it, you may have a right to file a lawsuit. This is a long and somewhat complicated process. With that in mind, the first, and most important, step in the process is to speak to an attorney..

Do I have a Case for a Civil lawsuit?

Your attorney will be able to advise you on whether or not you have a legitimate case, and your likelihood of winning it, as well as the maximum likely award you're likely to receive, based on the type of harm suffered, and the limits on damage awards that are sometimes imposed by state law.

If, after considering your attorney's advice, you decide that filing a lawsuit is worth the time and effort, your first step is to get the case into the court system. This is done by filing a complaint. A complaint is a document that the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) files with the court. It lays out all of the plaintiff's factual allegations against the defendant (the person being sued). The allegations in a complaint must be limited only to those that are actually relevant to the case at hand. Including irrelevant and/or baseless accusations in a complaint will not help your case.

Your complaint should also contain a prayer for relief. This is a short section (usually just a few sentences) at the end of the complaint where, after making all the allegations against the defendant, the plaintiff tells the court what he wants the court to do about it. It usually contains a request for money damages, and a catch-all request for "any other relief that the court may deem appropriate" or something to that effect.

Once the complaint is filed with the court, the plaintiff has a limited period of time (usually a couple months) to serve the complaint on the defendant.

This is usually done by a professional process server. In order for a lawsuit to go forward, the defendant has to receive advance notice of it. Obviously, it would not be fair to the defendant to proceed with a lawsuit against them without providing them with notice of the lawsuit, giving them an opportunity to prepare.

Generally, this is a simple matter of a process server going to the defendant's home or workplace, and handing them a copy of the complaint. However, sometimes, a defendant will try to avoid being served. Contrary to popular assumption, you cannot avoid being sued simply by avoiding personal service of the lawsuit. If the defendant cannot be located, or is not amenable to service, the complaint can be left with another member of the defendant's household, with instructions to give it to the defendant as soon as possible. This counts as valid service. Failing this, the complaint can be mailed to the defendant's last known address in some circumstances. If the defendant's address is not known, the plaintiff can, as a last resort, place a notice to the defendant in the local newspaper, informing the defendant that they're being sued. If all else has failed, this so-called "service by publication" counts as a proper service, and the defendant cannot later claim that they never received notice of the lawsuit.

Typically, however, the defendant will realize that there's no point in trying to avoid being served, and they'll accept the documents without incident. Once this happens, the defendant has a limited period of time to respond to the complaint.

This response usually comes in the form of an answer, in which the defendant denies or admits the allegations in the complaint (obviously, they usually deny the majority of the allegations). They can also file a motion to dismiss the complaint. This usually contains a legal argument, claiming that, even if all the allegations in the complaint are true, the defendant should still not be liable. Most often, this is based on the argument that the statute of limitations for the plaintiff's claim has expired. After hearing arguments from both sides, a judge will decide the issue of dismissal. If the judge decides not to dismiss the lawsuit, it will go forward.

Obviously, this is just a basic overview of the process involved in filing a civil lawsuit. If you believe that you have a case against someone, you should not hesitate to speak with a civil litigation attorney in your area.

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