Anyone interested in filing a civil lawsuit in the state of Missouri needs to understand the state's judicial system and its court rules. In Missouri, as elsewhere in the United States, legal cases are divided into two hemispheres: criminal and civil.
The term "civil" case is a broad one. This category includes every type of dispute that is not a criminal one. Since there are many different types of civil cases, each with its own rules, it pays to read up on how to file before jumping in.
Civil Cases vs. Criminal Cases
Court cases in Missouri, as elsewhere across the country, fall into two broad categories: criminal and civil. The two are very different; they involve different claims and different parties. A private individual can file a civil case, but not a criminal one.
Generally members of the public only get involved in criminal cases if they or someone close to them is charged with a crime, is a witness to a crime, or is the victim of a crime. Criminal cases can be filed only by a Missouri public prosecutor.
In a criminal case, the prosecutor charges someone with a crime. In court, they seek to prove that the person charged is guilty of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt. That standard is significantly higher than for a civil case. The prosecutor asks the judge to impose criminal penalties on an accused who is found guilty, including:
- Community service.
- Criminal fines.
- Restraining orders.
Civil Cases in Missouri
Civil cases in Missouri are used to resolve a vast range of conflicts between individuals, business entities and governments. As long as the case is not seeking a criminal conviction, it is a civil case. There are many types, including:
- Automobile accidents.
- Civil restraining orders.
- Property boundary disputes.
- Tax collection cases.
- Real estate disputes.
- Slip and fall cases.
- Medical malpractice suits.
- Debt collection.
- Nuisance cases.
- Civil fraud cases.
- Will disputes.
- Breach of contract cases.
In Missouri, a person can file a civil case in small claims court or in another division of the circuit court. Some have general jurisdiction and some only handle certain kinds of cases like family court. Each division has its own jurisdiction, meaning that a case must be filed in the appropriate division to be pursued. For example, small claims court only accepts damage cases with a claim not exceeding $5,000.
When to File: Statute of Limitations
Nothing lasts forever, and this includes the right to bring most civil cases. The idea is that justice requires that an action be brought before witnesses die or disappear, and while evidence on both sides remains fresh. To that end, Missouri laws set different "windows" in which certain types of cases can be brought.
These windows of opportunity for filing an action are called statutes of limitations. There are criminal statutes of limitations that require a prosecutor to bring a charge in court within a set period of time. As far as civil cases go, there are generally many statutes of limitations for different types of actions.
For example, the window of opportunity in Missouri for someone to file a lawsuit for personal injury, defamation or medical malpractice is two years. A plaintiff has five years to file a lawsuit if the case involves injury to property, trespassing or the enforcement of a written contract. Matters like debt collection, action on a money judgment and fraud carry a 10-year statute of limitation.
Where to File: Missouri Court System
It helps to know one's way around the Missouri judicial system before considering litigation. In this state, the trial courts – where civil trials are held – are called circuit courts. The state is divided into 46 different judicial circuits. Within every one of the circuits are various court divisions, including small claims, municipal, family, probate, criminal and juvenile.
Strict judicial rules limit the jurisdiction of each circuit and each court division. For example, someone living in Judicial Circuit 12 and suing someone in the same district will usually have to file in a circuit court in that jurisdiction. The appropriate division will depend entirely on the subject matter of the case and the amount of damages the plaintiff seeks.
Take small claims court again as an example. The plaintiff can decide to file in the Missouri Small Claims Court for money if, and only if, the case seeks damages that total $5,000 or less. Likewise, someone seeking bankruptcy must file in bankruptcy court, while those seeking divorce must head to family court.
How to Start a Lawsuit in Missouri
Almost without exception, a person wishing to start a civil action in Missouri must initiate the action by filing a petition or complaint in the proper court. The person or entity that files the opening petition is called the petitioner, or the plaintiff; the person being sued is termed the respondent or the defendant.
The Missouri court system regulates the form and content of the petition or complaint. A prospective plaintiff should consult the Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure, since these set out rules that must be followed by Missouri state courts. In many cases, forms are available for use in commencing civil litigation and, when available, should be used by those who are representing themselves.
While personnel at the circuit courts can assist an individual to locate the proper form, circuit clerks cannot and do not provide any legal advice. It is often a good idea to consult an attorney before filing a complaint of any sort other than in Missouri Small Claims Court, which is designed for use by lay people. Note that other documents must often be filed with the petition, including local court forms.
Missouri Small Claims Court
Missouri Small Claims Court is ideal for an individual not represented by an attorney if their claim qualifies. If the claim is for money, a petitioner can file a small claims court petition as long as the amount of the money claim is not more than $5,000.
Check the small claims court rules for other restrictions before filing. For example, a petitioner cannot request a jury trial in small claims in Missouri and cannot prosecute more than 12 small claims cases within a calendar year.
The procedural rules in Missouri Small Claims Court are fairly informal, much less so than in other circuit court divisions. It is possible for a party to represent themselves, but they may also appear with an attorney.
Preparing a Small Claims Petition
A small claims court petition is not difficult to draft. The petitioner sets out their case in a simple and straightforward manner. They must include the names and addresses of the parties, the underlying facts of the action, the alleged injury caused by the respondent and a list of the damages incurred. The petitioner then signs the document under penalty of perjury. The filing fee is relatively small.
Preparing a Circuit Court Petition
Not every case is eligible for small claims court in Mississippi. If a Missouri civil action requests an amount over the small claims limit, or if the claimant is not seeking a money judgment, they must file in another division of the circuit court. It is important to determine in advance which circuit and which division is appropriate, since each may have their own forms.
Often, a petitioner may be able to use a standard form, depending on the type of case. The Missouri court website contains a list of the different types of forms available with instructions for preparing and filing them.
As with the small claims court petition, the plaintiff has the obligation to enter all of the required information on the form. This always includes the identification of the parties, a description of the circumstances, and an explanation of the type of relief sought.
Depending on the case, other information might be required. For example, extensive financial information is required to file a bankruptcy petition in Missouri. And a divorce case requires additional forms about household finances and details about the minor children of the couple. Again, it is wise to seek legal advice before filing any of these actions in Missouri or elsewhere. One procedural error, and the petition may be rejected.
Signing Under Oath
Every petition in Missouri must be signed by the petitioner under oath, that is, under penalty of perjury. Some must be signed before a notary public. It must then be filed in the appropriate county. The petitioner pays a filing fee or, if they are unable to pay the fee, they must request that the court waive it.
Where to File a Petition
Note that if the petitioner is suing another individual, the petition must usually be filed where one of the parties resides or where the injury occurred. This is termed "venue," and improper venue can result in the case being tossed out.
Forms to File with a Petition
All Missouri cases must also contain a Confidential Filing Information Sheet. This court form must be filed at the same time as the petition in every Missouri case. This sheet provides any important confidential information about the case to the court.
Missouri courts often require other forms to be filed with the petition, as well. These depend on the type of case being filed and the court. Some local rules require forms particular to one court that are not required in others. It is a good idea for a petitioner to check with the court before filing to ascertain which forms are required.
Filing the Petition in Missouri
Once the petition and all required supporting documents have been gathered, the petitioner takes them to the appropriate court for filing. Various copies are required, so check with the court beforehand to determine how many. The court will charge a filing fee; the amount differs among courts and circuits.
When the petition or complaint has been filed, the Missouri court clerk's office prepares and issues a summons. This is a document for the person being sued to acquaint them with the litigation against them. It advises them not just of the name of the petitioner, the case number, and the name and address of the court, but also gives them a deadline by which they must respond to the filing.
Serving the Petition on the Respondent
The petitioner has the responsibility of arranging to have both the petition and the summons personally served on the respondent. Missouri state law permits various kinds of personal service but, generally a petitioner hires a process server to place the court document into the hands of the person being served.
The process server must then file a notice with the court swearing as to when and how the person was served.
- If you are seeking less than $3,000, you can file your complaint in small-claims court. In Missouri, small-claims court may be part of a municipal court or part of the circuit court.
- Missouri has 45 circuit courts. Some encompass more than one county.
- Circuit clerks can not assist you in completing forms.
- A civil suit must be filed within one to 10 years from the time of the incident at issue. For example, a suit alleging violation of a contract must be filed in five years. A suit filed after the specified period will be rejected.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.