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Civil Court Basics

Civil court is a government institution that settles disputes between at least two or more entities, typically in the same courthouse that also tries criminal cases. Civil court cases can include any combination of businesses, private citizens, government institutions, or other parties.

A civil action begins when a plaintiff files a complaint against the opposing party. The aim is to determine one party's liability for damages or injuries against the plaintiff.

This section covers various topics that may help you understand and navigate the civil court system.

Understanding Federal and State Court Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction is the power of the court to hear and decide cases. The Constitution and the federal and state laws govern jurisdiction. The court must have jurisdiction over a case because it can't lawfully render a judgment without it.

There are two main categories of jurisdiction. First is subject matter jurisdiction, which is the court's ability to hear a particular type of case. Second is personal jurisdiction, which concerns the court's power over the individuals involved in the civil case.

Federal Courts' Jurisdiction

Federal courts often hear cases arising from federal law, such as cases involving patent infringement. Federal courts also hear cases involving diverse parties, provided the amount involved is more than $75,000.

For a case to qualify under the federal court's jurisdiction, the court requires complete diversity. What this means is that the parties in the case come from states different than any other individuals involved in the case.

Deciding Between State and Federal Court

Deciding whether to file a civil case in state or federal court involves strategic considerations. Although multiple cases can be filed in either state or federal court, certain civil lawsuits are under the exclusive jurisdiction of federal court. For instance, cases involving federal tax disputes or patent infringement.

There are different factors to consider when deciding where to file a civil case. Often, the plaintiff's lawyer decides where to file, considering the preponderance of the evidence. But it's essential to remember that the court should have jurisdiction over the subject matter of the civil case. In addition, the court should also be able to exercise control over the defendant or the property involved in the case.

Class Actions and Other Civil Suits

A class action is a type of lawsuit in which several people who have suffered the same or similar injuries sue the same defendant as a group. It often combines individual claims into one, allowing them to present evidence collectively.

Class action lawsuits are common when the same defective product injures multiple people. Examples are defective motor vehicles, medical devices, or pharmaceutical drugs. It also occurs when multiple people suffer harm due to corporate misconduct, employment practices, or securities fraud.

A class action lawsuit is beneficial because it consolidates most aspects of litigation. This includes the attorney(s), the defendant(s), the evidence, and the witnesses. Also, filing individual lawsuits becomes impractical if a particular product or action affects many people.

For example, a class action lawsuit makes sense when a group of employees experienced religious discrimination by the same employer or when a defect in a product has caused injuries to several people.

A class action lawsuit is procedurally different from a typical civil trial. So, contacting a lawyer experienced in class action lawsuits is essential.

For example, potential class members must be notified of the class action lawsuit and can opt in or out. Class action lawsuits also take time to build the case and contact class members.

The court's decision binds any individual who fits the court's definition of a class member. This is true whether the individual went to court or participated in the case. If the parties settle, the judge must approve the settlement to ensure it's fair to all parties. Any money judgment awarded will usually follow a distribution plan distributed to each class member.

Subpoenas in Civil Litigation

In a civil case, subpoenas are essential in the discovery process. This is where parties gather pieces of evidence before a civil trial. A subpoena is a court order commanding you to be present or testify in a legal proceeding. It can also be a command requiring you to produce documents, do something, or present information that can help support a civil case.

In general, an attorney requests a subpoena. A court clerk, notary public, or justice of the peace can issue a subpoena after a party files a request from the clerk of court. A judge or other court officer then signs the subpoena and returns it to the requesting party. It should then be served on the recipient following the rules of civil procedure.

Responding to a Subpoena

According to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, you should raise your objections against the subpoena within 14 days from the date of service. Failure to do so may constitute a waiver of your right to object to the subpoena. So, preparing a proper and timely response to a subpoena would be best.

Hiring an Attorney

The civil litigation process can be complicated. It requires understanding the court proceedings and nuances behind civil court rules. It's often best to seek legal advice from an attorney. They can represent your interests in a civil case and guide you through each phase of the trial court process.

An experienced general litigation and appeals attorney can assist you in many different types of cases, such as:

  • Contract disputes
  • Property disputes
  • Payment recovery
  • Intentional torts, such as defamation
  • Fraud

Other civil litigators focus on specific types of civil cases, such as personal injury or consumer protection.

Learn About Civil Court Basics

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