What is a Civil Lawsuit?

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Picture of Researcher: Ariana Arce​

Researcher: Ariana Arce​


Picture of Journalist: Aaron Vivanco

Journalist: Aaron Vivanco


Picture of Editor: Daniela Polo

Editor: Daniela Polo


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What is a Civil Lawsuit?

Lawsuits may have different denominations depending on what is the claim about. A civil case is a private, non-criminal lawsuit, in which a “plaintiff” (who files the complaint) seeks to hold a certain “defendant” (against whom the complaint is filed), accountable for specific damages.

A civil lawsuit is, simply put, a dispute resolution between two or more parties. Such partes can be person or legal entities (i.e., companies, organizations).

Civil lawsuits involving negligence, probate, divorce, breach of contract, and copyright violations are the most frequent types. A “tort”, which is a wrongful act that causes injury to the plaintiff’s person, property, reputation, for which it is entitled to compensation, is a type of civil case.

In civil cases, the plaintiff sues the defendant under the claim that the latter failed to comply with a legal responsibility that was owed to the former. A plaintiff might ask the court for damages (money compensation), injunction (force defendant to act somehow) or declaratory judgement (stating plaintiff’s rights). In tort cases, plaintiffs will normally seek damages or injunction.

If the court, before which the complaint is filed, determines that the defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s damages, such court also establishes how much is the compensation due to the plaintiff and might order defendant to cease the harmful actions.

How to file a Civil Lawsuit?

Filing a civil lawsuit is not an easy job, although any person or entity is entitled to do so. It all begins with filing a complaint with the court and sending a copy of the document to the defendant (this is called “service”). 

The complaint describes the details of the claim, such as information about the plaintiff, the alleged damages or injuries, and their alleged connection with the defendant’s actions, product, or service. Also, it should indicate that the court has jurisdiction, and asks the court to order relief.

Moreover, the complaint should be specified the compensation or outcome seeked by the plaintiff: as explained above, sometimes is money (compensation), other times is ordering the defendant to stop the conduct which caused the damages (injuction), and often is both. 

Complaints and other filed documents must comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”), and plaintiffs can be self-represented in civil cases (“pro se litigant”). Nevertheless, hiring an attorney is always a better idea, since courts require full compliance with FRCP to all litigants and attorney already have such expertise, also bureaucracy and legal jargon may quickly become an obstacle. If you are thinking about filing a civil lawsuit, contact us for help. 

After drafting the complaint, you or your lawyer should submit it in person or by mail, alongside the evidence of paid filing fees. After that, there are other formal guidelines to strictly follow, established by the FRCP. 

Remember: your address and other personal information should be updated at all times, to prompt and effectively receive correspondence from court and litigants. 

Civil Vs Criminal: What Are The Differences? 

To be straightforward, civil cases deal with civil laws, while criminal cases deal with criminal law. The first is the law of civil and private rights, and the second regulates crimes and their punishments. 

Civil lawsuits handle claims of infringement of professional codes, civil and commercial statutes, as well as health and safety codes. On the other hand, criminal lawsuits manage offenses against the states or federal government, such as murder, theft, or drunk driving, just to name the most frequent types. 

While civil cases usually involve negligence, criminal cases generally involve intent. Also, the former is subject to a lower burden of proof than the latter. Civil cases generally only result in monetary damages or injunctions, while criminal case may involve jail time and fines as monetary punishments Additionally, criminal casas almost always allow for a trial by jury and defendants are always entitled to an attorney (no self-representation), unlike civil cases.

For instance, if a company fails to warn consumers about a health risk posed by a product, this is most likely due to negligent conduct (civil case). However, if someone murders another person is committing a criminal act which most likely involves intent (criminal case). 

How Does a Civil Action Unfold?

There are several phases or steps to carry out a civil action. It usually goes as follows:

Case Preparation 

This includes a discovery phase, where the parties share information about the case, such as the identity of the witnesses and other documents relevant to the lawsuit. Parties can also file requests, or “motions,” with the court seeking rulings on the discovery of evidence, or on the procedures to be followed at trial.

It may include depositions, which are interviews with the witnesses that are held before the trial. On these occasions, there is always a court reporter who produces a word-for-word transcript of the encounter.          

Settling Cases

A trial is an expensive and sometimes long-lasting event. Consequently, judges try first to make litigants reach an agreement to resolve the dispute. They often suggest mediation or arbitration before recurring to the last resource, which is a court trial. If the parties do not reach an agreement, then the judge schedules a trial, for which each side has the right to request a jury when monetary relief is sought. 

At The Courtroom

Once the trial is approved, the judge resolves which evidence can be presented in the courtroom. Both sides present witnesses and documents, each attorney has the right to question all the witnesses, and the other can object to any part of the questionnaire. The judge is the one who decides what goes and what does not in the courtroom, for instance, a judge can either sustain or overrule an objection. 

Meanwhile, during the trial, there is a court reporter who makes an accurate transcript of every word and sound, and a deputy clerk keeps a record of each testimony, document, and any other evidence presented to the court.  

Closing Arguments

When all the evidence is exposed, each party has the right to present a closing argument, in which they present their final arguments and try to persuade the jury or judge in their favor. Afterwards, the judge or jury decides if the defendant is responsible or not for the damages, and the amount of money the plaintiff should receive for compensation. 

Also, the judge may decide about other issues, such as ordering the defendant to stop certain activities to prevent new damages from occurring.