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What is a Civil Lawsuit?
Everything You Need to Know

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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

Schmidt & Clark, LLP is not currently accepting these types of cases and has posted this content for information purposes only. We encourage you to seek a qualified attorney, if you feel you might have a case.

Quick Summary

  • A civil lawsuit is filed in the federal courts if the compensation amount is thousands of dollars.
  • Many civil suits are resolved before they make it to court.
  • Individuals claiming they have suffered harm or damage will typically bring a civil case.

What is a Civil Lawsuit?

A gavel with dollars underneathA civil lawsuit is a legal proceeding in which one party sues another for damages, typically monetary compensation, arising from an injury or a wrongful act [1]

The injured party, known as the "plaintiff," files a complaint with the civil courts, alleging that the other party, known as the "defendant," is liable for the injuries suffered. 

If the plaintiff can prove that the defendant is responsible, the court will order the defendant to pay damages to the plaintiff.

Examples of a civil case:

  • Breach Of Contract 
  • Personal Injury
  • Negligence
  • Equitable Claims
  • Tort Claims
  • Landlord Tenant Claims

Civil Case vs. Criminal Case

It is important to tell the difference between civil and criminal cases, as they are handled quite differently. Here are some key differences:

1. Burden Of Proof

A lawyer writing down on a bookIn a criminal or civil case, the accuser must provide a burden of proof, which is an obligation to prove or back up the allegations.

In a criminal court, the burden of proof is defined as "beyond a reasonable doubt." 

However, in a civil trial, the burden of proof is usually based on the "preponderance of evidence" or "clear and convincing". 

2. The Type Of Punishment

In a criminal case, you could go to jail or receive probation if you lose the case in court. However, the worst punishment in civil cases is usually having to pay money or change your behavior. 

3. The Person Who Initiates The Case

A lawyer with a pen and a clipboardCivil law includes any illegal act directed at a specific person or company, such as breaking a contract or damaging property.

The person who initiates the case and starts the legal process is the plaintiff.

Criminal law is the law that deals with crimes that affect society as a whole.

This is why only the state can initiate a criminal trial and bring criminal charges against the defendant.

4. The Person Who Judges The Case

A criminal lawsuit will include a jury trial, a group of people who listen to the evidence and decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

Sometimes in a civil action, there is also a jury. However, in most civil cases, the judge is the one who will hear the evidence and decide.

Main Elements of a Civil Lawsuit

A lawyer holding a gavel

Every civil suit must have the following elements for it to be valid:

A legal claim: This is typically based on some legal wrongs that have been committed, such as breach of contract, defamation, negligence, or assault.

An injured plaintiff: The person who was wronged and is seeking damages from the court must be a real person or legal entity, such as a corporation. In some cases, multiple plaintiffs may be involved in a single lawsuit.

A defendant: The person or entity accused of causing harm to the plaintiff or having a legal responsibility must also be a real person or legal entity.

Damages: The plaintiff must have suffered some harm due to the defendant's actions. This could be physical, emotional, or financial damages.

To win a civil case, the plaintiff must prove all four of these elements. The plaintiff will likely lose the case if even one element is not proven.

Process of a Civil Lawsuit

A person clasping their hands with a lawyer's gavel on the side

Now let us take a look at the process of a civil lawsuit within the legal system. Keep in mind that the process below is specifically for civil cases and may differ from one case to another:

1. A Plaintiff Files A Complaint

A civil action officially begins when the plaintiff files a document called a "complaint" with the appropriate court, which details why the defendant caused them harm and is thus liable for damages.

2. Case Is In The Civil Court

The pre-trial phase of a civil court case comprises motions filed by the plaintiff's and defendant's attorneys to either dismiss the case or proceed with it.

Sometimes one party may file for summary judgment to force the losing party to settle the case before it gets to a judge or jury.

3. Evidence Discovery

In this phase, both the plaintiff and defendant submit evidence for review. This could be in the form of documents or testimonies from witnesses. 

4. Settlement Negotiations

Each side will hold one or more pre-trial conferences, also known as alternative dispute resolution, to negotiate an agreement.  If they reach a final resolution, they'll write it down in a binding contract, and the case will be dismissed. 

Based on my experience, civil suits are usually resolved before they enter the trial stage.

5. The Trial and Court Judgement

If the two parties cannot agree, then they go to court. Either the plaintiff will win, the defendant will be held accountable, or they will lose, and the case will be dismissed.

“Most civil lawsuits don’t get to this point. However, the trial is probably the most well-known stage of a civil case. In this part of the civil lawsuit, the plaintiff may use opening and closing arguments, witness exposure, and more to make a case.”
- Jonathan Rosenfeld, Personal Injury Attorney 

6. Appeal

The final stage in the process is optional and does not occur in every civil suit. When a case is lost by one party or the other, they have the option of appealing the court order. 

When you file for an appeal, an appeals court or a supreme court will decide whether to dismiss the appeal, affirm or reverse the judgment, or order a new trial.

A lawsuit may go back and forth between the civil and appellate courts several times before reaching a final conclusion.

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Should You File A Civil Suit In State Or Federal Court?

You should file a lawsuit in a state court if the amount of money you are suing for is less than a few thousand dollars and in federal court if it is greater than a few thousand dollars. 

How Is a Decision Made in a Civil Lawsuit?

A decision in a civil lawsuit is made based on whether the evidence and arguments presented by both sides meet the judge's or a jury's standards of acceptability.

What Is a Summons in a Civil Lawsuit?

A summons in a civil lawsuit is a document that is served along with the complaint when you file a lawsuit. It gives the defendant notice of the lawsuit and tells them that they have a certain amount of time to respond.

Do You Want to File a Civil Lawsuit?

Filing for a civil lawsuit is a decision that should not be taken lightly. If you wish to pursue a civil case, contact the Schmit & Clark, LLP law firm for a free consultation.

Our civil law attorneys have extensive knowledge of both federal law and criminal law, as well as experience in settlement negotiations.