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Initial Court Documents in Civil Lawsuits

The initial legal papers filed in court when starting a civil case are called "pleadings." The following information offers insight into the court documents that could play a role in your civil lawsuit.

Filing a Complaint

The first document filed in a lawsuit is usually a pleading called a complaint or a petition. It's essential in various types of cases. The complaint is a detailed document laying the groundwork for a civil action.

The purpose of the complaint is to provide the defendant with notice of the factual and legal grounds for the plaintiff's claims when suing. Generally, the facts outlined in the complaint are based on the plaintiff's knowledge. Sometimes, the plaintiff will use the phrase "upon information and belief" before stating some facts. This means that the plaintiff has heard about those facts from someone else. Or the plaintiff has formed the belief that the events described in the paragraph happened as described. A complaint contains the following information, among others:

  • It outlines the plaintiff's (petitioner's) case against the opposing party (defendant or respondent) in a court case.
  • It identifies the parties involved and establishes the legal basis for the court's jurisdiction over the controversy.
  • It states the plaintiff's legal claims and relates the facts giving rise to the allegations.
  • It contains a section called a demand for judgment or prayer for relief. Here, the plaintiff sets forth what the court wants the defendant to do, such as pay damages or take (or cease) a particular action.
  • It may also contain an affidavit to support the factual assertions and require a filing fee depending on the nature of the claim and the court's rules.

Most states require that the complaint set forth only a short and plain statement of the plaintiff's claims. So, the facts in the complaint don't necessarily need to tell the whole story. But it should contain sufficient information to satisfy the elements of each cause of action upon which the lawsuit is brought.

Summons and Service of Process

The summons is a court order stating where the courts will hear or prosecute the lawsuit. It notifies the respondent or the defendant of a suit against them. The summons sets out the time limit for the defendant to file an answer or seek to dismiss the case. It will also describe the consequences of failing to respond on time. For instance, if the defendant failed to file an answer, they can be in default. Failing to respond to a lawsuit on time will cause the court to provide a default judgment against the defendant.

Details Contained in the Summons

Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure contains details relating to the summons.

The content should include the name of the court and the parties involved. It should be directed at the defendant and include the name and address of the plaintiff's attorney. For self-represented parties, provide the name and address of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff is without an attorney, the self-help resources at the clerk's office may give additional information.

It's also crucial for the summons to state the date and time when the defendant must appear and defend the claims, which is a part of the pretrial process. The summons should likewise contain a warning informing the defendant of the possible consequence of failing to respond on time. This includes the possibility of the court entering a default judgment or summary judgment. In addition, the court clerk should sign the summons. It should also have the court's official seal to ensure the authenticity and legal standing of the summons.

Service of Summons

Service of summons is a crucial step in civil litigation. It's also governed by Rule 4 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

To start the legal action, the plaintiff should serve the summons and a copy of the complaint to the defendant. The plaintiff handles serving these documents on the defendant and should complete the service within the time set by the Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Rules also require the service of summons done by anyone 18 years old and above who is not directly involved in the case. In some instances, a United States marshal, deputy marshal, or a person specially appointed to serve summons.


A defendant may respond to a complaint in different ways. This includes by making special appearances or motions before answering the complaint. The defendant commonly responds to a complaint by filing an "answer." The answer addresses each paragraph in the complaint, and each response takes one of three forms: "admitted," "denied," or "insufficient knowledge to admit or deny."

An answer may also set forth various affirmative defenses. The defendant can state the legal reasons why they shouldn't be liable for the plaintiff's damages. Some of these defenses may also be the basis of a motion to dismiss.


If a defendant has a claim against the plaintiff arising from the same circumstances as those that led to the complaint, the defendant should raise it in the answer section titled "counterclaims." The format of writing counterclaims is similar to a complaint.

Reply to Counterclaim

If a defendant asserts a counterclaim in the answer, the plaintiff may respond by filing a "reply." The reply will "admit," "deny," or assert that the plaintiff lacks information, just as the original answer did. The reply also may assert defenses, just as the answer did.


Crossclaims arise when many parties to the lawsuit have their dispute arising from the transaction or occurrence. It's a claim against two or more parties aligned as plaintiffs or defendants. For example, Driver A, the plaintiff, sues Driver B and Driver C, the defendants, after a multiple vehicular accident. But in the accident, Driver B suffered an injury caused by Driver C. In that case, Driver C can file a crossclaim against Driver B in the same lawsuit.

Answer to the Crossclaim

The person sued in a crossclaim will file an answer similar to the one filed after the original complaint.

Third-Party Complaint

Sometimes, a defendant sued in a case has a legal reason to pass liability to another person. A typical example is a contract in which the third party promises to pay (indemnify) if you, as a future defendant, become liable in a case. The defendant may bring the third person into the lawsuit if they file a third-party complaint for indemnity or contribution. Like the regular complaint, a third-party complaint sets forth the relevant facts giving rise to the defendant's claim against the third party and will request relief.

Answer to a Third-Party Complaint

The person sued through a third-party complaint must file an answer similar to the one filed after the original complaint.

Seek Legal Advice

Determining what court forms or documents to prepare to initiate a lawsuit can take a lot of work. Similarly, responding appropriately to a lawsuit can be arduous and confusing. Contact a local litigation attorney today for professional legal help with your case. Litigation and appeals attorneys can assist you with various legal services related to your case. For instance, they can guide you on what court documents you need or waiver of specific procedures if necessary.

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