Consider talking to a lawyer
Because of how much you need to think about and do right, it’s always a good idea to have a lawyer. Or at least consult with a lawyer for the parts of your case that may be more challenging for you to do without help.
A lawyer that has experience with your type of issue will know if you have a strong case and if the law is on your side.
A lawyer will see your case more objectively and is not personally involved. This can help if your case is emotional or you have a lot at stake.
Lawyers know the law, court procedures, and how to research the law. A lawyer can help you identify if there are special rules or exceptions that apply to your case.
For example, there are special rules you need to follow if you are suing a healthcare provider (like a doctor or dentist) or a state or local government. Other types of cases may also have special rules. If you do not follow the special rules you will lose your case.
Do you have a legal reason you're owed money?
When you sue someone, you need to have a legal reason to take them to court. There are many different legal reasons someone can be at fault and owe you money. However, even if you feel that someone has wronged you and owes you money, you still need a valid legal reason to sue them in court or your case will be dismissed.
When you sue, you will need to include at least one legal reason you have to sue in the papers that you file. This is called your cause of action. Common causes of action are a breach of contract or negligence. You will need to talk to a lawyer or do your own research to figure out what cause or causes of action apply to your case.
How much money can or should you ask for?
Civil cases are divided into two main groups:
- Limited civil cases (for $35,000 or less)
- Unlimited civil cases (for over $35,000)
Cases for $12,500 or less can be filed in small claims court. Small claims court is faster and simpler than going to limited or unlimited.Small claims court is simpler, less expensive, and generally faster than filing a case in civil court. For some people, it makes more sense to ask for less than what they think they are owed so that they can file in small claims court. This is because civil cases can end up costing you money if you need a lawyer to help you or the process goes on for a long time. In the end, you may decide it is better to get less than what you are owed if it means you get a decision faster. Find out more in deciding between small claims and limited civil.
Who should you sue and do you know where they are?
Who to sue
Sometimes it's clear who owes you money. But sometimes it's not so clear. Sometimes there are additional people - or businesses - you should sue that you may not have thought of. Or people you think you should sue that you actually can't sue.
If the other side is a business, you will need to know its official business name.
Example: Who to sue in a Car accident
If you're in a car accident, you would sue the driver who hit your car if it was their fault. You may also be able to sue the owner of the car if that’s a different person than the driver, even if they weren’t in the car with the driver during the accident. But, contrary to what many people think, you ordinarily do not sue the other driver’s insurance company.
Example: who to sue about damage to your home during a construction project
You hire a contractor to do some work on your home. That contractor, in turn, hires a subcontractor to upgrade your plumbing. The plumbing breaks and floods your house, damaging your floor and your belongings. You can sue the contractor. But it may make sense to also sue the subcontractor at the same time because they may also be liable to you for the damage. The judge will decide who is responsible or if both of them are.
Where they are
You need to know where whomever you plan to sue is located so that:
- You know which state or county you can sue in (usually, either where harm was done to you or where the person you’re suing lives or does business)
- You can put the correct address for them on the court forms
- They can be served the court forms if you decide to sue them. If you're suing a business, they may have a designated person that receives court forms (known as an Agent for Service of Process)
Do you have proof?
You do not have to have all your proof together before you start a civil case. But, you should know what you need and that you will likely be able to get it during your case through a process called discovery. Examples of proof (also called evidence) include witnesses who saw or heard what happened, receipts, medical bills, photos, videos, emails, or business records.
EXAMPLE: PROOF OF REPAIR COSTS AND LOSS OF INCOME FROM INJURIES
Someone hit your car, damaging your car and hurting your back. You have a police report showing the other driver is at fault. To prove the damage to your car, you will need evidence such as a paid invoice or a few estimates for the repair costs. To prove injuries to you, you need evidence such as medical bills, doctors’ reports showing what injuries you suffered, a doctor's note saying you couldn’t go to work, pay checks showing income loss, and anything else that shows why you should get the money you're asking for.
EXAMPLE: PICTURES OF DAMAGE TO YOUR HOME FROM CONSTRUCTION and REPAIR COSTS
Your contractor broke a pipe when working on your home, flooding your home. You’ll likely need pictures of the damage to your floor and belongings. You’ll also need evidence such as estimates or paid invoices for replacing the floor and buying new furniture and other belongings you lost from water damage. If you had to move out of your home and stay in a hotel, for example, you would also likely provide receipts for those expenses.
If you are suing in limited or unlimited civil, you will need to follow the rules of evidence. This may mean you have to meet certain requirements for your evidence to be used in court. The rules are different for small claims court. Find out more about the difference between small claims and limited civil.
Have you missed the deadline to sue?
There are filing deadlines called statutes of limitation. Deadlines are different for different types of cases.
Example: common statutes of limitations
- Written agreement - 4 years from when broken
- Unwritten (verbal) agreement - 2 years from when broken
- Personal injury - 2 years from injury
- Property damage - 3 years from when damaged
If you are suing the State of California or a local government, there are other, typically shorter, deadlines you'll need to meet.
Do you have a contract that says you can't sue or requires you to sue in a certain place?
If you are suing someone and you have a contract with them, read the contract to see what it says about suing someone. Sometimes contracts say you can't sue in court if you and the other side have a disagreement.
The agreement or contract may say that, before or instead of suing in court, everyone has to go to:
It might also say something about where you can sue or which laws apply.
Civil cases are hard to pursue without a lawyer
There are many laws, rules, procedures, and deadlines to know and follow. And a civil case can take a year or more to resolve. If you do not have a lawyer, you will need to do legal research to make sure you know what laws and rules you need to follow.
If you miss deadlines or do something wrong, you may automatically lose your case. Even worse, you may end up having to pay the other side’s lawyer. And you may even have to pay court fines or sanctions for doing something wrong.
Even if you win, it may be hard to collect the money you are owed
The court will not collect the money for you, so it will be up to you to go after the other side to get them to pay you if they do not pay you on your own. This process (called enforcing a judgment) can be very frustrating for people and many often give up.
If you are still interested in suing someone, get an overview of the process and step-by-step instructions.