Filing a civil complaint is the official beginning of a lawsuit in California, but it is also the end product of a lot of preparation. Even an experienced attorney does far more work before filing a lawsuit than you might think. The process is a little like planting seeds for a garden: Sowing the seeds is easy compared with working the soil, removing weeds and digging in compost that must happen first. Doing the prep work for a civil lawsuit is extremely important since the possible consequences of committing errors include having the case tossed out of court.
Getting the Parties Right
Every lawsuit has at least two parties, the plaintiff who brings the suit and the person or entity who is being sued, called the defendant. In California, any person 18 years or older and mentally competent can bring a lawsuit, but you have to be sure that you have standing – you must be directly affected by the action. For example, if you're injured by slipping and falling in a store, you have standing to sue for your injuries. If you simply see someone fall, you don't have standing.
Who Are You Suing?
Determining who to sue is the next step. Sometimes this is easy, but it can get complex quickly. In the slip-and-fall example, you probably don't want to sue only the store manager who is likely to be just an employee. You'll need to find out who owns the business and whether it's a chain.
If it's owned by another business, you'll have to find out who owns that business.
Suing the Government
If you're suing a state government agency, you may have to give notice before you sue. This means that you must prepare a claim that fulfills the legal requirements of Government Code section 910, including your name and mailing address, a description of what happened and the identity of the government employees who caused your injury. Look for online forms to use if you are suing the State of California or the City or County of Sacramento. You must generally file your suit within six months of serving that notice.
Name the Correct Parties
Naming the incorrect party can be fatal to your case. If you're suing a business, figure out what type of entity it is in order to correctly name the defendants. If the business is a sole proprietorship, sue the owner by his name. If it's a partnership, sue each of the partners by name.
If it's a corporation or a limited partnership, sue by the registered corporate or partnership name. All this information is available from the California Secretary of State's office.
Preparing the Documents
Judicial Council forms are available for many types of complaints in California. You can find these online on the California courts website. The caption at the top of the complaint is the place to fill in your name as plaintiff, state whether you have a lawyer or are representing yourself, and identify the defendants. Use the rest of the complaint form to outline your case.
Briefly summarize what happened and how you were injured, then date and sign your name at the bottom of the complaint form.
Prepare the summons for the court clerk to stamp. This is a short document with the same caption as the complaint. It advises the defendant as to the date and the place to appear in court to defend the case. You'll also need a cover sheet. Check with your court to see if local rules require additional documents.
Where to Sue
In California, you must decide which level of court to file in – small claims, municipal or superior – and which district to sue in. Both small claims and municipal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction in California so the amount you are seeking in damages determines the court. You can sue in small claims court for $10,000 or less, in municipal court for between $10,000 and $25,000, and in superior court if you are seeking more than $25,000.
California courts have jurisdiction if the event central to your complaint occurred in the state. For example, you can file in a California court if a car accident or other personal injury occurred within the state, when a contract was entered into or breached there, or if real property that is the subject of the lawsuit is located there. Generally, you can file suit in the county where the injury occurred or where the defendant resides. If more than one county is appropriate for your suit, pick the one most convenient to you.
Filing the Papers
After your papers are prepared, make several copies and take them, together with the original documents and a credit card or checkbook, to the court clerk's office during business hours. Pay the filing fee at the appropriate window and hand the entire batch of documents to the clerk. The clerk will enter a case number, file the original documents and stamp the rest of the documents to show that they have been filed with the court. When he returns the copies to you, put them into a file folder so you have one set of documents for your records and one set to serve on the defendant.
Don't hesitate to get legal help at any point along the way.
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.