The American judicial system provides for two distinctly different categories of legal proceedings: criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits. Criminal cases are brought by the government or state against someone who has allegedly broken one or more laws that affect the well being of the public as a whole. It can be anything from murder to merely being intoxicated on the street.
Civil lawsuits are disputes between two or more entities, either individuals or businesses. They’re not infractions committed against the state or the public. A successful civil lawsuit can result in an injunction – the court orders one party to the lawsuit to stop doing something – or for damages, which involves monetary compensation paid to one party by the other because of a hurtful action. A civil lawsuit might also just ask the court to decide a certain issue that’s in dispute so the parties know how to proceed going forward.
Types of Civil Lawsuits: Tort Claims
“Tort” loosely translates to “wrong,” and this umbrella covers a lot of civil lawsuits. Someone did something – or failed to do something – and someone else was hurt as a result. Tort claims cover a wide range of issues, such as personal injury or medical malpractice.
If someone runs a red light and totals your car, injuring you, you can file a tort action and attempt to prove that the accident occurred due to his negligence or other wrongdoing. You can ask the court to award you damages, such as money for your pain and suffering, money to cover your medical bills and any property loss, or even money for lost wages.
Types of Civil Lawsuits: Breach of Contract
Breach of contract suits often involve creditor claims. Someone might have taken out a credit card, made some charges, then failed to pay the debt. When he accepted the card, he signed a contract with the lender agreeing to repay his charges with interest. When he failed to do so, he breached the contract.
Another example might be a contractor who agreed to do certain work for you for a price, then failed to perform after collecting the money from you.
When the plaintiff – the party who brings the lawsuit because he’s been wronged – suffers some additional loss in addition to not getting the services or money that was contracted for, he can ask the court for damages. But the court would more likely order “specific performance” in this type of case, directing the guilty party to do whatever he agreed to do under the terms of the contract. In the case of the contractor, the judge might order him to give you your money back. A money judgment entered in this type of lawsuit can be used to garnish wages or place liens against property.
Types of Civil Lawsuits: Class Action Lawsuits
Class action lawsuits often involve breach of contract or tort claims. The difference is that a whole group of plaintiffs file the lawsuit together to address a wrongdoing. They might number in the hundreds or even the thousands, and these people are often total strangers to each other. Think defective drugs or other products that harm people all across the country, or a large employer who inflicts some type of harm or unfair treatment on a significant group of workers.
A lawsuit is typically organized this way because it’s just not feasible for every single plaintiff to sue the entity individually. By the same token, they don’t usually have a voice or any real involvement in the case. They typically won’t have to testify in court. They can’t call the lawyer who’s representing the group to ask for updates – or, at least, the lawyer probably won’t take those thousands of calls. Any damages that are recovered are divided among all the plaintiffs after costs of the suit and legal fees are paid.
The Different Civil Courts: Small Claims
Small claims court typically handles breach of contract lawsuits. Proceedings here are limited to losses of certain dollar amounts, usually less than $10,000, but this amount can depend on the state. Tort and breach of contract suits can fall into this category if they’re literally “small,” but you can’t sue for grievous bodily injury or much in the way of damages. Parties to small claims cases are usually required to appear in court on their own, without an attorney to represent them. The whole idea behind small claims court is to simplify the legal process for both the court and the litigants in these comparatively minor cases.
Read More: Difference Between Small Claims Vs. Civil Court
The Different Civil Courts: Landlord/Tenant
Landlord/tenant court is for issues between a landlord who leases real estate and the landlord's tenant. Suppose you’ve rented your home to a lovely young couple who promptly brings in a whole litter of German Shepherd puppies despite the fact that the lease clearly states that they can’t have pets. Worse, the unruly dogs then proceed to destroy the property. Or, maybe they pay rent for a month or two, then they just stop, but they continue to live there. Cases like this would be heard in landlord/tenant court.
When a landlord initiates such a case, she typically asks the court to make the tenant leave the premises – she wants to evict them. She might also ask the court to order that they pay any outstanding rents or fees due, not to mention for any damage to the property if the security deposit isn’t enough to pay for it all.
Tenants can sue landlords in landlord/tenant court, too. You might want to take your landlord to court because she’s six months late returning your security deposit and has no valid grounds for withholding it from you.
The Different Civil Courts: Family Court
Family courts deal with a broad range of family issues, and divorce is often just the tip of the iceberg. You might already be divorced, and now you find that you need to enforce some aspect of your decree because your ex isn’t complying with it. You can take her back to family court. You might file a lawsuit in this court to gain custody of your children or to ask for child support if you and your ex were never married. You can ask the court to legally separate you and issue property, custody and support orders. Family courts also handle adoptions.
These cases arise due to some conflict in family and close personal relationships. In some states, you can seek a restraining order in family court if someone is stalking or harming you, or threatening to harm you. In other states, the criminal court system deals with these domestic violence issues.
The Different Civil Courts: Probate Court
Probate court handles the estates of deceased individuals. When someone dies, his will must be “probated.” This involves opening a case with the court so his outstanding debts can be paid and his property can be transferred into the names of his beneficiaries. Probate is still required in most cases if he doesn’t leave a will or some other estate plan in place. His property still must be transferred and his bills still must be paid from his cash and his assets, but this is accomplished according to state law rather than his wishes as stated in a will. Probate court oversees all this in both cases.
Probate court also deals with will contests, and with conservatorship and guardianship issues when someone becomes incapable of handling his own personal affairs, such as because of mental disability. The probate court would appoint someone to take care of him and/or his affairs.
The Different Civil Courts: Federal Courts
Civil actions are filed in federal court if the lawsuit involves federal law or if the parties to the suit are all from different states and the amount in controversy is over $75,000. Federal courts also include bankruptcy courts, which are the courts in which bankruptcy cases are filed, and tax court, in which tax disputes involving the IRS are litigated.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.