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A Beginner’s Guide to Filing a Lawsuit


Suing someone for a legal dispute can be a complex endeavor. A lawsuit involves several crucial stages, including determining whether you have a good case to pursue and filing court paperwork.

The complaint is the document that officially starts the case, laying out your legal claims and seeking relief or damages. This guide simplifies this process, turning it from a daunting labyrinth into a clear path to justice.

Determine Your Legal Rights

Whether you have grounds for a lawsuit depends on a variety of factors, from the specifics of your situation to state laws and your ability to pay. A good place to start is with an attorney, who can help you determine if you have viable reasons for filing a lawsuit. If you decide to sue, your lawyer can also explain the legal process. Brisbane’s top-rated family lawyer is a credible law firm that you might need in the future.

Civil cases usually begin with the person who brings the suit filing legal papers called a complaint. The person who files the complaint is known as the plaintiff, while the defendant is the person or entity she is suing.

Once you file a complaint, the court must give the defendant a chance to respond. This is usually done through service of process, which involves providing the defendant with a copy of the complaint and a summons. The defendant must be given at least a short amount of time to respond, which varies depending on the case type.

The plaintiff will usually want to ask the court for monetary compensation, which is known as damages. The amount awarded to the plaintiff will depend on a variety of factors, including the nature of the damage and what the law says about how much is fair compensation for the incident. The plaintiff may also choose to request a trial by jury, which is not required in every case.

You may also have to decide whether to sue in federal or state court. This decision will depend on a number of factors, including where the incident occurred and whether you are seeking compensation under a statute that is a federal law, such as 42 U.S.C. SS 1983, or under a state law, which gives the courts of that state jurisdiction over the case.

Identify the Defendant

A lawsuit is a dispute that is brought to a court of law by one party, called the plaintiff, against another party, called the defendant. There are many different types of suits, but all civil cases (as opposed to criminal cases) start with the person filing legal papers, which are called a complaint, calling attention to the case. Generally, you file your suit in the county where the dispute occurred or where both parties live. The rules differ somewhat for certain types of cases, like small claims or landlord-tenant cases. The specifics can be found in the relevant Help Topic sections.

In order to successfully sue, you must be able to prove that the defendant broke a duty to you and that this breach caused you harm. The legal theory that provides the basis for the claim is known as a cause of action, or CoA. There are a number of different causes of action, such as negligence, breach of contract, fraud, defamation, and unjust enrichment.

The Defendant must be given an opportunity to respond, which is called filing an answer. The answer must explain the defendant’s side of the story, admitting any statements that are true and denying all of those that are not. The answer also allows the Defendant to raise any applicable counterclaims against the Plaintiff.

The defendant must be served with a copy of the Answer, which can be done by either mailing or hand-delivering it. If the Defendant does not file an answer within the required time period, the court will enter a default judgment against them. For that reason, it is very important to get the correct address for the defendant when preparing your paperwork.

Draft Your Complaint

In addition to setting forth your legal claims and the damages you are seeking, your complaint should also include an explanation of why those facts justify your suit. The court may have its own rules about what a complaint should contain, but the most important thing is to state the relevant facts in a clear and coherent way. You should try to use simple language, and cite to supporting documents if possible.

The complaint begins with a caption that identifies the plaintiff and defendant, and the court in which the case is being filed. The caption should also include a reference to the applicable statute or case that provides the basis for your claim.

A statement of the facts follows the caption, and provides a narrative of the events that gave rise to your lawsuit. It should be concise and presented chronologically, making it easy for the judge to follow. The statement of the facts should be followed by a list of the plaintiff’s legal claims, each clearly explained in a short paragraph.

You should also state in your complaint whether you are suing in your “individual capacity,” as a prisoner, or in your “official capacity” as an employee of the government. Then, you should identify the names of all of the defendants in the proper order and give their titles or positions. The complaint should also include their residences or places of business.

Some states have standard forms you can use to file a lawsuit, but most do not. Regardless of which state you are filing in, the federal courts website offers some sample complaint forms for different types of cases. If you have limited funds, you should file papers requesting the court allow you to sue in forma pauperis, as described in Part Two.

File Your Complaint

The complaint is the main document in any suit. It is your chance to explain what happened to you and to show the court that there are legal reasons for the judge to rule in your favor. The complaint must state (or “allege”) enough facts to meet all of the requirements for your particular case.

This section of the book provides basic legal research and writing tips for drafting your own complaint. It also explains the basic rules and procedures that apply to all suits. You should also check the local rules for the court where you want to file your suit. Some courts have specialized rules that apply to certain types of cases, like small claims or cases involving land.

In most cases, the complaint must be filed within a certain time after the events that you are suing about occurred. If you wait too long to start your suit, the judge may throw it out. This is called being “time-barred.” There are some exceptions to this, but they are very limited. This chapter explains what happens when you are time-barred and how to get around it.

If you need to add a new factual situation to your original lawsuit after the statute of limitations has run out, you can usually do so by filing a “supplemental complaint.” This is discussed in Section C and Appendix B.

When you file your suit, you will need to serve the defendant with copies of all the papers that you have filed. This is called “service.” Section D explains how to do this. You must serve the defendant with both a Summons and a Complaint before you can proceed with your case.

Serve the Defendant

The defendant must be served with a summons and complaint. The law requires that certain defendants be personally served, but you may also serve them by certified mail with a return receipt requested. The court clerk does the mailing for you for a small fee, which is recoverable if you win your case. You can use this method to serve anyone, including federal agencies, corporations, and officers or employees sued in their official capacity, but only if you have made “reasonable efforts” to locate the person.

Some district courts have special rules about how your legal papers should look and what kind of paper to use. These are called the Local Rules and you can get them by requesting them from your district court. For example, some districts require a certain number of copies of each document.

Generally, you should have your papers filed in the court where the defendant lives. For example, if the defendant is in the Western District of New York, you should file your lawsuit there. The court will then assign a civil action number and send you a copy of the Local Rules.

Most states have laws describing how to properly serve legal papers on a defendant. Those laws may be different from the federal rules. Some states allow you to serve someone by posting a notice on his or her door. However, the notice must describe the nature of the suit and give the defendant a chance to respond. You can find the law describing service of process for your state by checking your state statutes or visiting your public library. If your state does not have its own law on this topic, you can check the United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A) for a summary of the federal rules and for court decisions that interpret them.