Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Filing a Lawsuit

America loves litigation. Television shows, movies, and stage plays like "12 Angry Men" and "Perry Mason" highlight our fascination with the legal process. In real life, people know very little about the court system. You may know you can sue someone, but do you know where you can sue them or how much you have?

The best-known civil lawsuits involve personal injury cases following car accidents or slip-and-fall injuries. You may have taken a case to small claims court. But there are many other reasons for filing cases in civil court.

This article reviews the types of lawsuits you can file in civil court and the federal and state laws involved. You can file many civil cases yourself, but you may need an attorney. Finding an attorney is part of this discussion.

Where You Can Sue

Civil procedure is the set of laws and rules outlining how to bring a civil case. Part of civil procedure determines where you may sue someone and in what court you can sue them. Suing someone requires the correct court. There are two essential factors: jurisdiction and venue.

  • Jurisdiction is the power the court has to interpret and execute the law. Some courts have "general" or "unlimited" jurisdiction and can hear any type of case. Others have "limited" or "special" jurisdiction and may only hear specific cases, like family court.
  • Venue refers to the county or location of the courthouse. The venue is usually a state court, but sometimes it may be a federal court.

For more information, visit FindLaw's Due Process and Personal Jurisdiction article.

When You Can Sue

All states have statutes of limitation on various civil actions. These laws limit the amount of time parties have to file suits. For instance, in most states, personal injury claims have statutes of limitation ranging from two to six years. Before a plaintiff files a civil case, they should check their state laws, which limit the time to file.

Once you file a lawsuit, there are other time periods for notifying the opposing party and filing court forms. Deadlines are important when suing other people.

Why You Can Sue

Although people will tell you it's possible to sue anyone for anything, this is not quite true. To sue someone, you must have a valid cause of action. Your lawsuit must have a monetary remedy. For instance, in a breach of contract case, the judge can award the plaintiff the value of the goods or services they would have had if the party had not breached the contract.

Sometimes, people sue for injunctive relief. They want the defendant to do something (or stop doing something). Courts grant injunctive relief in some situations, such as stalking, but it is rare in most civil cases.

Elements of Civil Court Cases

Civil court cases begin when the plaintiff files the complaint. Once the case starts, the plaintiff must send the defendant a copy of the court summons and the complaint. Service of process is essential because, without it, the defendant has no legal knowledge of the case.

Plaintiffs can have the summons and complaint delivered by a process server, the sheriff or constable, or someone unrelated to the case. They can't serve the defendant themselves.

Extra steps in a civil case may include:

  • Defendant's response. The opposing party may respond to the complaint and defend the claims. The defendant can counterclaim against the plaintiff and make their own complaint. In some cases, defendants must make counterclaims in their answers, or they waive their right to counterclaim.
  • Discovery. Before trial, the parties must exchange evidence. The attorneys may take depositions from witnesses and the plaintiff and defendant.
  • Parties may negotiate for settlement before trial. In some states, civil cases must try alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or arbitration, before litigation.
  • Default judgment. If the defendant fails to respond or file other pleadings according to deadlines, the plaintiff may move for a default judgment. The plaintiff gets the judgment without a hearing or trial.
  • Trial. You may have a jury trial or a bench trial. At the trial, the parties (or attorneys) present evidence and call witnesses to review the facts in the case.

The outcome of a trial is either for or against the plaintiff. In issuing a judgment, the judge or jury may grant the plaintiff's claim in whole or part. For instance, a judge may grant a landlord's request to evict a tenant but give the tenant 30 days to move out instead of three.

Attorney Fees and Costs

You can file your case (pro se or in pro per). Many self-help websites and downloadable complaint forms help you get started. Depending on the nature of your case, you can file your case in court without difficulty.

More complex cases need an attorney's help. Most people worry about attorneys' fees when it's time to file a lawsuit. Attorneys' fees can be expensive, but they are less expensive than losing a case or the cost of a new trial.

When you hire an attorney, you should discuss payment methods during your first meeting. Attorneys can use different payment methods depending on your case.

  • Flat fees get charged for routine cases or those that won't take much time. Small claims cases, traffic tickets, and DUIs are often flat fee cases.
  • Hourly rates are the most common. Attorneys bill for every hour they work on your case. They may charge less for work done by associates or paralegals.
  • Contingency fees are typically seen when the award comes from a third-party payment, such as personal injury claims. State laws prevent attorneys from taking some types of cases, such as divorce and criminal cases, on contingency.

You may pay court costs, such as filing fees, as part of your attorney fees, or you may pay them separately. Be sure you discuss these issues before signing any attorney fee agreement.

Visit FindLaw's Types of Legal Fees for more information.

How a Civil Attorney Can Help

An experienced civil attorney can analyze your case and advise you on your claim. Contact a civil law attorney before filing any documents and learn your options.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options