Civil cases in California

A civil case is when a person or entity, including a governmental organization or a business, sues another in court, typically for money. There are many reasons someone can sue someone else. This guide has general information about civil cases that involve suing for money. It can help you understand how civil cases work, what types there are, and what to know if you have a civil case.

Civil case basics

There are many reasons someone may sue someone for money

The case could be about a contract dispute, damage to property, injury to a person, credit card or other debt, work-related disputes, and more. 

This guide will give you the general steps that apply to these types of civil cases. It also gives you some specific information about some of the more common reasons someone may go to civil court, like property damage, contract disputes, personal injury, and employment cases. It also has instructions if you're sued for a debt, like credit card or medical debt. 

There are other types of civil cases. Learn more

Civil cases often involve money. But they can also involve things like:

  • Asking the court to stop a person or a business from doing something (called an injunction) or ask them to do something
  • Asking the court to make an order that sets out the obligations and rights of each party (called declaratory relief)

These are complicated types of civil cases. They don't have pre-made forms you can use and the law can be difficult to explain and understand.  This guide does not cover these types of civil cases. Talk to a lawyer for more information if you think you need to start one of these types of civil cases.

There are other types of legal cases also handled in civil court. For example, family law, probate court, name changes, gender recognition, and evictions. You can find more about these types of cases in the Self-Help Guide.

There is no limit to how much you can sue for in a civil case

 Civil cases are divided into two main categories generally by how much money they involve. The procedures are a little different between the two main types:

  • Unlimited civil cases are cases for over $35,000

  • Limited civil cases are cases for $35,000 or less
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For lawsuits for $12,500 or less, the person suing (plaintiff) may be able to file in small claims court instead. Business entities, like a corporation, can sue for up to $6,250 in small claims court. If you're suing about COVID-19 rental debt, there is no limit to how much you can sue for in small claims court. These cases are typically faster, less complicated, and less expensive than a limited civil case.

Find out more about the difference between a limited civil and small claims case

Civil cases can be complicated, so you may need legal help

A civil case has many laws and procedural steps you must follow

For example, you will need to follow, the Code of Civil Procedure, California Rules of Court, and your court's local rules. Often, there are no court forms to use that can help you make sure you have all the information you need. This Guide covers the general steps to follow, but it does not cover all the laws and rules you will need to know and follow.

Any mistake, even a small one, can mean that your case is dismissed, you lose, or in some situations even that you may have to pay for the other side’s lawyers' fees and costs.

Where you can get legal help or information that you will need

Sometimes, if you start or respond to a case on your own, you may find later in your case you do not know what to do next.  You may be able to find a lawyer who can help you just with the parts that are more challenging for you to do on your own. Your court's Self-Help Center may have resources for you.

If you decide not to get a lawyer or you cannot find one, you may find some helpful information on the Sacramento Law Library's Legal Research page. The library also has a guide with the steps you'll have to follow to start a civil case or respond to a lawsuit. Much of the information applies to every county in California. Or contact your local law library for help in your county.

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