A civil lawsuit is a type of legal proceeding that deals with disputes between two or more people. These could be individuals, businesses, or other kinds of organizations. Many civil lawsuits seek to hold someone liable for injuries or wrongful acts. If Person 1 does something that causes harm or injury to Person 2, the law might allow Person 2 to recover money, also known as “damages,” from Person 1. A lawsuit is usually the last step in a process that begins with a demand that someone pay damages, take certain other actions, or stop doing something. While the term “lawsuit” tends to make people think of dramatic courtroom scenes, very few civil lawsuits ever make it all the way to trial. This article provides an overview of the goals of a civil lawsuit, the kinds of disputes that may lead someone to file a lawsuit, and what you might expect to happen if you are involved in one.

What is the goal of a civil lawsuit?

Civil lawsuits can have several goals:

  • Recover compensation for an injury or other harm;
  • Get someone to do something; or
  • Get someone to stop doing something.

In the first category, the “injury” could be a physical injury, such as if Person 1 causes a car accident that injures Person 2. The lawsuit could seek compensation for Person 2’s medical bills and other losses. It can also involve other losses. If Person 1 damages property owned by Person 2, for example, they might have to pay Person 1 for the cost of repairing or replacing the property.

A civil lawsuit is about asserting someone’s legal rights. Except in rare cases, it is not about punishing someone. This is one of the main ways that civil lawsuits are different from criminal cases. In certain situations, a court may award extra damages to a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, known as “punitive damages,” as discussed further below.

What kinds of cases are involved in civil lawsuits?

Civil lawsuits can cover a wide range of disputes between people or businesses. The following are only a few examples:

Personal injury

Many lawsuits result from injuries. They seek to recover damages from the person who is legally responsible for causing those injuries. Some personal injury cases involve intentional acts by a defendant, such as assault or battery. A plaintiff must prove that the defendant did something intentionally and that this act caused them to suffer injuries.

Many personal injury lawsuits rely on a legal theory known as “negligence.” This requires a plaintiff to prove the following four items:

  • The defendant owed a “duty of care” to the plaintiff or the general public. For example, drivers owe a duty to everyone else on the road to obey traffic laws and drive safely.
  • The defendant breached this duty of care. A driver might breach their duty of care by taking their attention off of the road, running a red light, or driving while under the influence of alcohol.
  • This breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff must show that the defendant’s actions, or lack of action, led directly to their injuries.
  • The plaintiff suffered actual damages as a result. This often includes medical bills, lost wages, and other damages like pain and suffering.

Examples of personal injury claims that can lead to civil lawsuits include the following:

  • Car accidents;
  • Truck accidents;
  • Boating accidents;
  • Slip-and-fall accidents;
  • Construction accidents;
  • Other workplace accidents;
  • Medical malpractice;
  • Defective products;
  • Toxic chemicals; and
  • Dog bites and other animal attacks.

Contract disputes

A contract is a legally enforceable agreement between two or more people. When a party to a contract fails to do what they promised to do, they may be liable to the other party or parties for breach of contract. Many civil lawsuits seek damages for losses suffered because of someone’s breach.

Business disputes

Many types of business disputes can result in civil lawsuits. This may include breach of contract claims and disputes between business partners.

Real estate disputes

Owning real estate can be quite complicated, and it can lead to many kinds of disputes. Real estate issues that can result in lawsuits include the following:

  • Eviction cases;
  • Property line disputes between neighbors; and
  • Title disputes between owners, or between current and former owners.

Employment disputes

Disputes leading to lawsuits can arise between employers and employees for many reasons, such as:

  • Employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and other unlawful acts;
  • Wrongful termination;
  • Failure to pay minimum wage or overtime; and
  • Breach of contract.

Intellectual property

Copyright and trademark laws protect the exclusive right to use creative works like songs, pictures, logos, or slogans. Lawsuits for copyright or trademark infringement seek damages for unauthorized use of protected works.

Family law

Family law includes issues like divorce, child custody, and child support. Spouses and parents need court orders for many family law matters, which can result in court proceedings.

How is a civil lawsuit different from a criminal case?

The U.S. legal system divides most legal proceedings into two categories: civil cases and criminal cases. Some types of cases do not easily fit into either category, such as bankruptcy, but the two categories work for most legal matters. Several features of criminal law are significantly different from civil cases.

Who can file a case

Any private individual can file a civil lawsuit. Only prosecutors who work for the government can file criminal charges.

Different goals

The goal of a civil case is to recover monetary damages or obtain an order or judgment from a court. In a criminal case, the prosecutor’s goal is to prove a defendant’s guilt and ask a judge or jury to impose a punishment, which could include jail or prison time.

Different burdens of proof

A plaintiff in a civil lawsuit has to prove their case “by a preponderance of the evidence.” This means they have to convince a judge or jury that it is more likely than not that their allegations are true. If a civil lawsuit were a football game, the plaintiff would only have to get the ball to the 51st yard line.

Prosecutors have a much more difficult burden of proof in criminal cases. They have to prove a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that the state must convince a judge or jury that there is no reasonable explanation for what happened except for the defendant being to blame.

Additional constitutional protections

A criminal conviction can have serious consequences for a defendant. As a result, the Bill of Rights provides extra protections for criminal defendants that do not necessarily apply in civil cases. For example, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to an attorney in criminal cases, but not civil cases.

The right to appeal

If a defendant loses in either a civil or criminal case, they may be able to appeal to a higher court. A plaintiff in a civil case can also appeal a loss. If the state loses a criminal case, meaning that the defendant is acquitted, it cannot appeal. The acquittal is final.

Do I need an attorney to file a civil suit?

Anyone can file a civil lawsuit. You must have the proper paperwork, and you must file it in the correct clerk’s office. You will have to pay a filing fee in most situations.

Just because you can file a civil lawsuit on your own, however, does not necessarily mean that you should. The court system is complicated. Every state has its own laws dealing with various legal issues. Every county might have its own rules for filing new lawsuits. On top of that, individual courts or judges often have specific rules about matters like how to format the paperwork. Getting something wrong can, at best, delay your case. If the mistake is big enough, it could result in a judge dismissing the case entirely.

A lawyer with experience in the type of dispute you have in the area where you live can help you understand your rights and options. They know how to put your case together and how to file it correctly. They may even be able to negotiate a settlement with an insurance company or another attorney, meaning you do not need to file a lawsuit at all.

What kinds of damages can I get in a civil suit?

Only some types of civil lawsuits seek monetary damages. In personal injury cases, recovering compensation is usually the main purpose. Several types of damages may be available:

Economic damages

You can recover damages that compensate you for losses that came directly out of your pocket. In a personal injury case, this may include:

  • Medical bills;
  • Lost wages;
  • Rehabilitation expenses, such as physical therapy;
  • Future medical costs; and
  • Loss of earning capacity.

Non-economic damages

Some losses that occur because of an injury are not as easy to measure. You can show bills from doctors and hospitals to prove how much you had to pay in medical bills. Non-economic damages compensate you for losses that are harder to quantify. These may include:

  • Pain and suffering;
  • Mental anguish;
  • Disfigurement; and
  • Loss of enjoyment of life.

Punitive damages

Some state laws allow additional damages in cases where a defendant’s conduct was particularly bad. Punitive damages do not compensate a plaintiff for any specific loss. Instead, they punish the defendant for their behavior. This type of damage is usually only available if a defendant intentionally caused the plaintiff’s injuries or acted with “gross or wanton negligence.”

What courts handle civil lawsuits?

Most civil lawsuits take place in state courts. Federal courts can hear civil lawsuits in some situations.

State courts

Every state has its own court system with multiple levels. This typically starts with multiple trial courts at the county level. It culminates in one court, often known as that state’s Supreme Court. Where you should file your lawsuit depends on the type of dispute.

Federal courts

The federal court system consists of district courts, circuit courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. District courts may hear civil lawsuits in a few situations, such as when:

  • The dispute specifically involves a federal statute; or
  • The plaintiff and the defendant are from different states, and the plaintiff is seeking more than $75,000 in damages.

When should I file a civil lawsuit?

A lawsuit is usually the last resort after you have been unable to negotiate a settlement agreement with the defendant, their attorney, or their insurance company. At the same time, you have a limited time to file suit. Every type of claim has a deadline, known as the statute of limitations, after which you cannot file a lawsuit. For personal injury claims, most states have a statute of limitations of at least two years after the date of the injury.

Will my civil lawsuit go to trial?

Trials are expensive, so very few lawsuits ever go to trial. The vast majority settle before that point.

What happens in a civil lawsuit?

A typical lawsuit has multiple steps:

Filing the lawsuit

The lawsuit begins when you file paperwork, usually known as a complaint or petition, with a court clerk.

Serving the defendant

You must follow specific procedures to deliver the paperwork to the defendant. This often involves having a constable or private process server hand-deliver it.

Gathering evidence

Once the lawsuit is underway, a process known as “discovery” begins. You can send requests for information and documents to the other party, and they can send requests to you. Both sides can take depositions of parties or witnesses in which they answer questions under oath.

Filing motions

The parties may file various motions and request court hearings. These can range from motions to compel someone to cooperate with discovery to motions to dismiss the case.

Going to mediation

Many courts require the parties to participate in mediation, where a neutral third party tries to help them reach a settlement.

Selecting a jury

Once a trial is scheduled, the first step in the trial process is to select a jury, unless the plaintiff has opted for the judge to decide the case.

Going to trial

At trial, both sides can present evidence and question witnesses.

Receiving a verdict

The jury or judge will enter a verdict. This usually consists of findings for the plaintiff or the defendant on each claim. For any claim where the plaintiff prevails, the judge or jury will determine the amount of a damage award.

Let the Cochran Firm help you stand up for your rights

The Cochran Firm, founded over fifty years ago by renowned lawyer Johnnie Cochran, is one of the top plaintiffs’ litigation firms in the country. Its team of experienced litigators has helped countless clients assert their legal rights and obtain damages. The firm handles cases on a contingent fee basis, which means that you do not owe the firm a fee until they recover money for you.

Our call center staff is available 24/7 to talk to you. Contact us today to speak with a Cochran Firm intake specialist or attorney and schedule a free, no-obligation consultation:

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