Remember, the information here is very basic. It is a good idea to talk to a lawyer to make sure you have a good case, and you follow the proper steps and procedures for filing your lawsuit. See help finding a lawyer for more information.
Before you file a civil case, you must figure out:
These are hard issues to decide, even if at first glance they seem easy. For example, let’s say you get into a car accident. First, you have to figure out if the person who was driving the car is also the owner of the car. If not, you have to make sure you sue both the driver and the owner. Second, was the accident in part your fault? You also need to know what city and county the car accident happened in. And you only have a certain amount of time to sue, called the “statute of limitations.” If you do not file your lawsuit within the statute of limitations, your case can be dismissed, even if the other person was clearly at fault.
And what if the car that hit you is a government vehicle, like a police car? In that case, you might have to sue the city or county where the police department is located. When you sue a government entity, the law generally requires you to first file a Government Tort Claim with the government entity, usually within 6 months from the date of the accident or incident causing injury. Most government entities have forms for this purpose. This requirement is to give the government entity notice of what happened and allow them to review your case and resolve it outside of court. If you do not file the Government Tort Claim with the government entity within the required time period, you may not be able to recover any money from that entity. Once you file your government claim, the government entity will accept your claim, deny your claim, or not respond. If the government entity denies your claim or does not respond within 45 days, you can then sue in court, but there is usually a shorter statute of limitations to file your lawsuit from the date the claim is denied (or the 45 days go by), often only 6 months!
IMPORTANT: Read Preparing for Court to find out how to figure out these issues and why they are so important. If you make mistakes with these first few steps before you even file your case, you may end up losing based on a procedural issue and never get your day in court.How Much Should You Sue For?
If you are suing for $10,000 or less, consider whether small claims court can work for you. To find out more, read the information and instructions to file in small claims court. There are some exceptions to the $10,000 limit, so make sure you understand those too.
Even if you want to sue for more than $10,000, reducing the amount you sue for so you can file in small claims court may make more sense than filing a limited civil case for more money. Remember that when you file a limited civil case, there are many more costs involved than in small claims, like higher filing fees, the need for a lawyer, meeting all the court requirements, and time. Suing for more money in a limited civil case but having to pay much more to file and handle the lawsuit may result in you getting less than $10,000, or only slightly more, and not worth the extra time, effort, and money of a limited civil case.
If you decide that you still want to ask for the higher amount of money and file a limited civil case, the rest of this section will give you general information about the court process.
Once you have answered all the preliminary questions about whom to sue, where to file your lawsuit, and how much to sue for, you are ready to file your case. Civil cases vary a lot depending on what the lawsuit is about, but there are some general steps you will have to follow no matter what you are suing about.
1. Prepare Your Court Forms
Complaint: To start a limited civil lawsuit, the plaintiff (the person who starts the case) files several forms. The first form to complete is the complaint. A complaint is a form that says how the person was hurt or how the dispute arose, who is responsible, and how much the damages are. A complaint must have at least one cause of action. A cause of action is a legal theory that is the basis for your lawsuit.
Summons: Besides a complaint with its causes of action, you will need a summons form. The summons is a form notice that tells the defendant he or she is being sued and gives the time limit for responding. There are several types of summons forms, and you will need to figure out which one you need for your case. Click to find the court forms. It is very important that the names of the defendants appear on the summons exactly as you have them listed on the complaint.
Cover sheet: You will also have to file a Civil Case Cover Sheet (Form CM-010) for every case.
Local forms: Most courts also require certain local forms to be filed when a case is started. Check with your local court for any forms that must be filed and served on the other side.2. File Your Papers in Court
Once all your forms are prepared, you will need to file them in court to officially get the case started. Before you file any forms, make at least 2 copies of all your paperwork. Take the original of your documents and the copies to the court clerk in the courthouse where you are filing your case. The court clerk will file your papers and give you a case number. The clerk will keep the original of your papers and return the copies to you stamped “Filed.”
You will have to pay a filing fee to file your papers. The amount of the fee depends on what type of case you are filing and how much you are suing for. If you cannot afford the filing fee, you can ask the court for a fee waiver. If the court waives your fees, you won't have to pay. But if you win your lawsuit and collect money, the court may ask you to pay back the waived fees.3. Serve the Defendant
After you file your lawsuit, you have to let the defendant (or defendants, if you are suing more than one person or company) know that you are suing. This is called “service of process.” You have to have copies of all the papers you filed with the court “served” on every party in the lawsuit. This means you have to have someone (not you) 18 or older deliver a copy of the papers to the other side. When you serve someone for the first time in a case, like when the case is just starting, you usually have to serve him or her in person. Read the Service of Process section to find out how to serve the defendant.
The person who “serves” the papers has to fill out a proof of service, telling the court that he or she served the papers the right way. Then, make sure you file the proof of service with the court. There must be a proof of service for every party served.4. If the Defendant Does Not Answer, File for a Default
In general, the defendant has 30 days to file a response to the lawsuit. If the defendant does not respond in time, the court can enter a default. This means that the defendant cannot contest the case unless he or she gets the default “set aside” or “vacated” (canceled). Once a default is entered, the plaintiff can ask for a default judgment against the defendant. The plaintiff can win and get a judgment for up to the amount that he or she asked for in the complaint. You have to follow some steps and fill out forms to do this. If there is more than one defendant, you will have to file a default for each defendant. If one defendant responds and another does not, you can only ask for a default against the one that did not respond.
Read Code of Civil Procedure section 585 to learn the rules for a default. If you get a default judgment, you have won. But the case may not be over yet if the defendant asks the court to set aside or cancel the default judgment.
5. If the Defendant Responds, your next step depends on how the defendant responded: