How to File a Civil Suit in South Carolina

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A legal action filed by a plaintiff against a defendant, alleging a violation of civil (or public) law against the plaintiff, is known as a civil suit. The purpose of a civil suit is to seek legal remedies or restitution, typically in the form of a monetary settlement.

What Is a Civil Suit?

In a civil lawsuit a person or a business entity (plaintiff) can seek to hold other persons or businesses (defendant) liable for harm for a wrongful act. If the plaintiff is successful in winning a civil suit, they will usually be awarded financial compensation for the defendant’s action or inaction.

A civil lawsuit can be brought for a variety of reasons, such as a residential eviction, a contract dispute, or injuries as the result of a car accident. The court will follow the South Carolina rules of civil procedure.

Civil Court vs. Criminal Court

Civil and criminal cases differ in a variety of ways. For example, anyone, but typically a private party, can bring a civil suit against a business or an individual who caused them damage or harm. In a criminal case, a prosecutor or district attorney brings the case to court as a local government representative.

In a civil case, the plaintiff has the burden of proof, meaning that they must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence – they need to show that the disputed fact is more likely to be true than not.

In a criminal case, the government must show that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – there is no other reasonable explanation that can come from the presented evidence.

Criminal and Civil Court Judgments

The court’s final decision is known as the judgment. In a civil case, the plaintiff asks the court to make a judgment in their favor to be paid by the defendant.

In a criminal case where the defendant is convicted of a crime, they typically face a number of penalties, including fines, incarceration in jail or prison, community service, probation or a combination of any of these.

Magistrates Court in South Carolina

In South Carolina, Magistrates Court has jurisdiction to hear civil and criminal cases. It tries all traffic cases as well as misdemeanor criminal offenses with penalties of up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Magistrates Court also handles civil cases if the plaintiff believes that they have been injured or that their property has been damaged, and the damage value is $7,500 or less. If damages are more than $7,500, the plaintiff will file their lawsuit in South Carolina's Circuit Court or the Court of Common Pleas.

Before Filing the Claim

The party wishing to file a civil lawsuit must first estimate how much their claim is worth. Again, to file in Magistrates Court, the claim must have value of $ 7,500 or less. They’ll next research the proper county in which to bring their case.

If the claim is against an individual, they should file in the defendant’s county of residence; if it is against a company, they should file in the county of the principal place of business. A plaintiff may also file their suit in the county where most of the cause of action took place.

Magistrates Courts are located in each South Carolina county. Their information may be found online through the South Carolina Judicial Department’s website at

Creating and Filing a Civil Complaint

To begin a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must explain what they are claiming and why they are claiming it. Magistrate court staff will general information and might help the plaintiff put their explanation into words if it determines that they need further assistance. This explanation is known as the plaintiff’s complaint.

In the complaint, the plaintiff must identify whom they claim injured them or their property. This can be a person, a business or another type of organization. Every party they identify must have some relation to the claims made.

The plaintiff must include a valid mailing address when filing the complaint, as the court will mail important documents to them regarding the case. It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to notify the court in writing of any address changes while the case is ongoing.

Paying Filing Fees and Attaching Supporting Materials

They will also pay a filing fee when they file their claim. If the plaintiff wants a jury trial, they need to send a written request for it to the court at least five business days before the trial date.

The plaintiff will next attach copies to the complaint of any applicable documents supporting their complaint. These can include bank statements, canceled checks, contracts, deeds, lease agreements, photos or receipts.

The plaintiff should bring the originals to court for use during their presentation.

When the Plaintiff Can’t Afford the Filing Fee

If a plaintiff wishes to file an action in Magistrates Court but cannot afford the filing fee, they’ll need to file a Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (Form SCCA405F). They attach this form to their complaint with an affidavit in which they state that they cannot pay the fee.

The magistrate judge decides whether to grant the plaintiff's In Forma Pauperis motion. If granted, the plaintiff will not have to pay the filing fees, but will still need to pay other court costs. If the judge does not grant their motion, the plaintiff must pay the filing fee.

Serving the Defendant With the Plaintiff's Claim

After the plaintiff files their complaint, the court issues a summons. Copies of the summons, the complaint, and any applicable attachments must be served on each defendant being sued. This is known as service of process and lets the opposing parties know of the court case.

Defendants can be served in several ways:

  • Through the sheriff’s office in the county where the defendant lives or works. Depending on the county, there may be a fee for this service. The law enforcement officer who serves the defendant typically provides a notarized affidavit to the plaintiff stating that the defendant was properly served.
  • By private process servers, which the plaintiff can find in their area online. These are private businesses and will charge a fee for service. If the process server successfully serves the defendant, the plaintiff should receive a notarized affidavit stating that the task was completed.
  • By mailing the complaint via certified mail to the defendant and asking for a return receipt. When the plaintiff receives the receipt from the post office, they should complete a notarized affidavit indicating the defendant's address where they sent the complaint and the date that it was mailed.

Service Through Publication

In some instances, the plaintiff cannot personally serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint through any of the above methods. In that case, they can do so through publication by filing a Petition for Order by Publication asking the court to allow them to publish a notice of the lawsuit in a local newspaper.

This notice lets the defendant know the plaintiff tried to serve papers directly on them but were unsuccessful.

If the court determines that the plaintiff used “due diligence” when attempting personal service methods, it will sign the Order for Service by Publication. This allows the plaintiff to move forward in publishing their lawsuit in a specific newspaper.

What Is a Counterclaim?

In some instances, a defendant will file a lawsuit against the plaintiff. This is known as a counterclaim. The plaintiff learns that there is a claim against them when they receive a counterclaim document from the court. The plaintiff does not have to file a reply. If they don’t, the court assumes the plaintiff has denied all of the defendant’s claims.

If the plaintiff chooses to respond, they must do so within 30 days of receiving the counterclaim. To determine when this period ends, the plaintiff counts 30 days from the day after they received the counterclaim. The plaintiff then appears in court to defend their position.

Trial Process for a Civil Lawsuit

Once a court date has been set, both parties appear in person before the court. The plaintiff will present their claim first. They may:

  • Question any witnesses they believe support their position.
  • Give the judge any documents or other evidence they believe support their claim.
  • Ask the defendant questions relating to their claim or position.

The defendant then explains their position. They may:

  • Question any witnesses they believe support their position.
  • Give the judge any documents or other evidence they believe support their claim.
  • Ask the defendant questions relating to their claim or position.

If either the plaintiff or defendant does not have an attorney, the judge will question both parties and any witnesses they may have. Anything either party or their witnesses say during the trial will be said under oath, so if anyone is not truthful, they may have committed perjury.

Civil Court Judge's Decision

After both parties make their claims and explain their positions, the judge – or a jury, if there is one – reviews the information. When all evidence is presented, they’ll decide who won the lawsuit. The judge will tell both parties of the decision in the courtroom at the same time – this is known as the verdict.

If either party disagrees with the judgment, they can file a motion in writing within five days from the date they receive the notice of judgment. They can also appeal the decision to the Circuit Court in the county of the Magistrates Court.

Civil Suit Judgment Award

The court awards the judgment to the winner, who must file it with the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. Before filing, the party who won the case must collect the transcript or paperwork of the trial from the judge, take it to the clerk’s office and pay a small filing fee.

If the losing party doesn’t pay the amount of the award, the winner may prepare an Execution of Judgment, asking the sheriff’s department for help in collecting the award granted under the court order. How they do this varies by county, as some have available forms, but some do not.

The winning party should contact the Clerk of Court’s office in the county in which they wish to execute the judgment to learn about its process for doing so.

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