People involved in disputes often rush to judgment and decide to sue. From car accidents and injuries to family-related issues to financial disputes, disputes can often be solved through communication and compromise. Not every dispute involves a legal cause of action.
It's important to keep in mind that civil suits involve financial compensation, which may or may not solve the underlying dispute. The money you win may also come at a cost, such as lawsuit filing fees, attorney's fees, and the time it takes to prepare and go to court.
Below are ten things to think about before you sue a company or individual in civil court.
1. Do You Have a Good Case?
This may seem obvious, but you need to have a genuine legal claim or "cause of action" in order to have a court support your position.
For example, the mere fact that you might have fallen in a store does not mean you will necessarily be successful if you decide to pursue a "slip and fall" claim. The elements of such a claim will need to be proven, including the store owner's fault in failing to ensure your safety.
Another example is someone doing a poor job after you hire them to fix your house. It may not be a breach of contract because the work was completed, it was just done poorly. In some cases, you might not be able to sue someone for the type of case you assume you have, but there are other ways you can fix the situation. You might settle with them outside of court and in return, you agree not to bring a lawsuit.
2. Have You Made a Final Demand in Connection With Your Dispute?
This step also seems obvious but is often overlooked by people in their rush to the courthouse. If they know they are at fault and are able to make the situation right, most individuals or businesses will do what they can to resolve the matter, rather than be dragged to court.
If the business won't respond to your demand, it's often possible to lodge complaints against businesses. If a company won't resolve a problem, look up the better business bureau or consumer protection office in your state. You need to have the legal business name, legal name of the owner, and phone number when making a complaint. This can be a good middle step if the company won't work with you outside of court but you don't want to sue the company yet.
3. Have You Tried to Settle the Dispute by Compromise?
Take a realistic look at the other party's point of view. Perhaps he or she has a valid argument on the subject matter, or even a potential claim against you. If so, adjust your own position accordingly.
If the dollar amount you asked for is an issue, you may want to think about reducing the amount you are asking for. From a purely practical point of view, you may receive more money that way than you would by suing, because you will have to pay attorneys' fees and other costs in connection with a lawsuit.
4. Will You Be Able to Collect a Judgment If You Win?
Take a hard look at the financial condition of the party you are going to sue. You want to be reasonably certain that you will be able to collect a judgment before you spend a lot of money on a lawsuit.
The courts will not help you get the money you win in a court case. Instead, the final judgment is often sent by certified mail and you have to collect the money yourself.
5. Do You Have the Money to Pay a Lawyer to Handle the Lawsuit?
Lawsuits can be expensive, and recovering your attorneys' fees is often not an option. Ask your lawyer for an estimate of legal fees, and do the math. It may be cheaper to settle. Get legal advice from an attorney you trust and consider the amount of money you could win compared to the amount you'd get in a settlement.
6. Do You Have the Time and Resources to Devote to a Lawsuit?
A lawsuit may take a lot of time and energy, and can be emotionally draining. Remember that you might find that you have less time and energy to devote to your work, business, family, and social life for the duration of the lawsuit. The case may involve completing demand letters and paperwork, filing at the clerk's office, waiting in court until your turn to speak, and following any of the judge's orders.
7. Are You Within the Applicable "Statute of Limitations?"
Check with your lawyer to make sure that any time limits for filing a lawsuit have not run out. Laws that place a time limit on bringing a lawsuit are called "statutes of limitations."
You do not need to handle the entire case within the statute of limitations. You will have a certain amount of time to file the lawsuit, and then the lawsuit can take whatever time the state courts determine it needs.
8. Where Will You Be Able to Sue?
If you are suing someone from a different state, a court in your state may not have power or "jurisdiction" over that person. In that case, you might have to sue the defendant in his or her location, which will probably be more expensive and inconvenient for you.
9. Is Your Claim Small Enough to Bring in "Small Claims" or "Conciliation" Court?
Each state's court system has some variation of "small claims court" or "conciliation" court, which only hears disputes in which a certain dollar amount is at issue (usually $5,000 or less).
If the case involves more than one person being wronged, it might qualify for a class-action lawsuit. This can still be handled in a small claims court or it may need to be moved to a larger court.
10. If You Bring Your Claim in Small Claims or Conciliation Court, Will You Represent Yourself?
If your case meets the requirements for small claims court, you will usually be able to represent yourself, if you wish. You will save attorneys' fees by doing so. However, you may wish to pay an attorney to coach or advise you on how to prepare your case.
You can expect to gather evidence, have contact information for yourself and the other party, talk clearly in front of a judge or courtroom of people, and follow any court orders. Even if you do not win, taking your case to court means you must follow whatever the court decides. Keep in mind the tables could turn and you could end up paying the other party instead.
How to Sue a Company (When All Else Fails)
If you have done everything you can to avoid a lawsuit, then your last step is to sue the company. You need to be within the statute of limitations for your state, and you will need the company's legal business name, the name of the owner, and their contact information before you file the lawsuit.
If you are asking for a small amount of money in small claims court, you may be able to bring the lawsuit yourself. Gather the evidence (emails, texts, dates of calls, contracts, etc.) and think about what you would tell the court. The company will be served and will either ignore you (which means you win the case) or appear in court to fight back. The judge will have the final say — if you win, then you need to do your own legwork or hire an attorney to ensure you are paid.
If your lawsuit is bigger than what your state's small claims court handles, then you should seriously consider hiring a lawyer. Remember that most companies have specific lawyers they turn to for legal disputes, and many have a team of lawyers with substantial experience arguing in their favor. By hiring an attorney to represent your side of the case — to tell your story — you level the playing field.
Get in Touch With a Legal Professional Before You Sue
There is a lot to think about before you sue, not least of which is whether you actually have a winnable case. Many attorneys provide a free initial consultation and won't collect unless they win your case. Get started today and find an experienced lawyer near you.