In a civil case, or lawsuit, a plaintiff asks a court for compensation for personal injuries, property damages and other losses or to enforce some private right. Unlike vicitms and defendants in criminal cases, the parties in a civil lawsuit do not face punishment and have more control over the continuation or end of a case. The rules of procedure for civil cases afford litigants methods to voluntarily end a lawsuit. Civil litigants may decide to stop a suit because of a settlement or the inability to be ready for trial. However, as with criminal cases, a court can dismiss civil cases despite the plaintiff's wishes to proceed when the cases lack merit or contain procedural defects.
Unilateral Voluntary Dismissal
A plaintiff may file a notice of dismissal once without permission of the court or defendant before a certain stage in the lawsuit. The deadline to unilaterally dismiss varies among jurisdictions. In federal court and Indiana, the plaintiff must file the notice before the defendant answers, or responds, to the complaint or files a motion for summary judgment, in which the defendant claims that the plaintiff cannot produce any evidence to prevail at trial. North Carolina permits the plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss before "resting" the case, or completing presentation of the case.
Voluntary Dismissal by Agreement or Joint Action
If the defendant has sued the plaintiff, a unilateral voluntary dismissal of the plaintiff's claims does not end the case, but removes only the claims of the dismissing party. However, both parties can end the case by filing a joint notice of or statement agreeing to a dismissal.
Voluntary Dismissal by Court
Unless the plaintiff files a timely notice of dismissal or obtains the defendant's consent, the plaintiff must receive the court's permission to voluntarily dismiss. The judge may permit the dismissal and has discretion to impose any conditions or terms deemed proper. In Massachussettes and the federal courts, the court must be able to try the defendant's claim separately and independently from the plaintiff's claims. In Arkansas, a plaintiff can voluntarily dismiss only by court order, although the plaintiff is entitled to such an order.
Effect of Voluntary Dismissal
A voluntary dismissal normally does not prevent the plaintiff from refiling suit unless the notice, stipulation or court order permitting dismissal states otherwise. However, a plaintiff may not file a notice of dismissal (unilateral dismissal) in a second lawsuit if the plaintiff did so in a prior lawsuit, even if the first lawsuit was in a different court. The second notice of dismissal is treated as a ruling in favor of the defendant on the merits of the lawsuit.
Involuntary Dismissal by Court
A court may dismiss a lawsuit because it lacks merit or was not filed correctly. A defendant may convince the judge that the plaintiff's complaint that no grounds exist to grant the plaintiff relief. In a summary judgment, the court concludes that the plaintiff cannot muster sufficient evidence to go to trial. The trial judge can "direct" a verdict for the defendant in a jury trial or dismiss in a case tried by the judge. Procedural defects in a lawsuit often involve the wrong court or location (venue) or that the court has no authority, or jurisdiction, over the defendant. In procedurally based dismissals, a plaintiff can refile the lawsuit, since these dismissals do not address the lawsuit's merits.