Before you start
Be prepared for the time and effort of a lawsuit
A lawsuit can last at least a year, if not longer. During that time you and the other side often send court papers back and forth, asking the other side to turn over evidence or the judge to make a decision about something. If you start the case, but then ignore your next steps, you may lose your case and might owe money if the other side spent a lot of money on a lawyer.
There are deadlines that must be met and procedures that you must follow. Delays or missed deadlines could lead to you losing your case and being liable to the other side for costs and/or fees. You may also miss out on the opportunity to develop evidence to prove your case or defense.
You should consider at least consulting with an attorney about your situation to see what options exist. You may be able to try to resolve it before resorting to a court case. And you should consider consulting with an attorney to clarify what kind of claims to bring, what you need to prove, and how to prove your case. An attorney can help walk you through the process and avoid problems.
You can use a guide for starting a civil case from the Sacramento County Law Library. Much of the information applies to every county in California. Or contact your local law library for help in your county.
Expect to get legal documents in the mail. Once you file your Complaint, watch for documents in the mail (or email, if you agreed) from the court and the other side (defendant). If you ignore these or miss a deadline, you can lose your case. If you move, let the court and defendant know your new address.
Figure out what information you need to fill out forms
To sue someone, you will need to fill out forms that say who you are suing and why. You can write this out yourself. But, it's usually easiest to use forms the court provides for free if they exist.
The forms have basic information to get you started, but you need to research what you need to say (plead) in the complaint to get a case started. These are the elements of the claim or defense. This will help you know what information you need to prove your case as discussed later in this guide.
If you do not say the right things in the complaint it can be more easily attacked by the defense and keep you from getting to trial. A lawyer can help with reviewing with you what kind of case you have, what needs to be in the complaint, and what you need to prove.
Fill out the forms
Fill out the Summons (form SUM-100) and a Complaint. Also, fill out a Civil Case Cover Sheet (form CM-010). Since you are the one filing a lawsuit, you’re called the plaintiff. The person or company you're suing is the defendant.
For the Summons, the bottom part needs to be properly completed. This tells the person being served in what capacity they are being served. This might be as an individual, it might be as a person sued under a fictitious name (like Doe 1), or it might be on behalf of another person, like an agent for service of process being served on behalf of a limited liability company. If there are multiple business entities, the proper one needs to be shown.
Depending on your type of case, there may be court forms you can use for the complaint and causes of action, or you may have to create your own. You can find links to forms you can use on the pages for personal injury, property damage, or breach of contract cases.
Your Complaint must have at least one cause of action.
Fill out more forms, if you can't afford the filing fee. You’ll need to pay a fee ($225-$450) to the clerk when you file your forms. If you can’t afford the fee, you can ask for a fee waiver.
Find out if there are any local forms to complete
Some courts have additional local forms they require you to use.
Contact your court clerk’s office or check your court’s website to ask if they have any local forms you need to use.
Make copies of your forms
After you’ve filled out your forms, make at least 2 copies of the forms.
Once you’ve completed the forms and made copies, you’ll file them with the court and pay a filing fee.