Civil actions are legal actions taken in an effort to recover damages after the alleged breach of one or more civil codes. Through the New Jersey civil lawsuit process, it is possible for a private individual to recover compensation for losses suffered through another private party’s actions or through a government agency’s actions. This could be after his vehicle is damaged in a collision caused by another driver’s carelessness, damage to his home or other personal property due to another party’s negligence, or after he performs work for another party and does not receive the payment owed according to his contract. In other words, if a victim experiences a financial loss because of another party’s noncriminal actions, the victim may pursue compensation for this loss through a civil lawsuit.
Civil Action vs. Criminal Action
There are many differences between a civil action and a criminal action, but the main difference is who takes action against the defendant. A private citizen may file a civil suit, but only a prosecutor or an attorney representing a government entity may file a criminal action. When a defendant faces a criminal suit, he faces criminal penalties like fines, jail time, probation and restitution. When a defendant faces a civil suit, all he faces is the possibility of having to compensate the plaintiff for her losses.
There are other significant differences between a civil suit and a criminal suit. One is the burden of proof on the party that brings the suit. In a criminal case, the defendant can only be convicted if the court finds him to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt_._ In a civil case, the plaintiff merely has to demonstrate through a preponderance of evidence that the defendant violated a civil law. In other words, the plaintiff has to demonstrate that it is considerably more likely that the defendant did commit a breach and cause her to suffer losses than that he did not.
Understanding New Jersey Civil Suits
There are many different kinds of civil claims. Civil action suits generally involve issues involving:
- Damage to motor vehicles and other personal property.
- Unpaid rent.
- Credit card debt.
- Defective merchandise.
- Faulty or incomplete work.
- Unreturned security deposits.
- Bad checks.
Situations related to professional malpractice, divorce-related expenses like spousal support and child support, and probate-related expenses are not handled by the Special Civil Part of the Law Division of the Superior Court. These are civil matters, but they are handled by other court divisions.
Choose the Right Court
Different divisions of the Special Civil Part court handle different types of civil lawsuits. Many of the civil action lawsuits individuals filed in New Jersey fall under the jurisdiction of the Special Civil Part court. These three specific types of claims are filed with this court:
Civil actions. Claims where the plaintiff seeks $15,000 or less in compensation. These are handled by the regular Special Civil Part court.
Small claims. Cases where the plaintiff is seeking $3,000 or less in compensation or $5,000 or less if the compensation is partially or completely for an unpaid security deposit. These are handled by the Small Claims section of the Special Civil Part court.
Landlord/Tenant actions. Cases through which landlords seek to repossess their leased units due to tenants’ failure to adhere to the lease requirements. These are handled by the Landlord/Tenant section of the Special Civil Part court.
When a plaintiff is pursuing $15,000 or more in damages, he must file his claim with the Law Division, Civil Court of the New Jersey Superior Court. If the individual is comfortable accepting $15,000 or less in compensation, regardless of his claim’s true value, he may file it with the Special Civil Part court. By doing so, he waives his right to take legal action later to recover additional damages.
Civil action suits are filed with the Special Civil Part court of the county where at least one of the defendants lives or where the involved business is located. For example, if the owner of a rental home in Seaside Heights enters the home after a week-long lease ends and finds the walls punched full of holes and light fixtures ripped down, he may file a civil action against the lessee to pursue compensation to pay to repair the damage the home sustained. If the renter lives in Essex County, the homeowner must file his claim with the Essex County Special Civil Court despite the damage occurring in Ocean County.
Determining the Need for Legal Representation
An individual who files a civil action lawsuit does not need to be represented by a lawyer. He may file a lawsuit on his own and represent his own case in court, which is known as pro se representation_._ However, many individuals who file civil action suits find that the New Jersey civil lawsuit process is much less confusing when they hire civil litigation attorneys to represent their cases. Similarly, hiring a lawyer to represent his case can make a plaintiff feel more confident in the lawsuit’s ultimate success.
A lawyer can help a prospective claimant determine whether filing a lawsuit is the ideal course of action for his case. Although he certainly can file a civil action suit in most cases, his situation might not be well served by filing a lawsuit and working through the New Jersey civil lawsuit process. His case might be better served by attempting to settle the claim out of court. Or, the case’s details might be so disjointed that it would be unlikely for the court to rule in his favor, which essentially means filing a lawsuit would be a complicated, expensive and fruitless process for him.
At various points in the New Jersey civil suit process, a lawyer can also advise her client about appropriate actions to take, such as attempting to settle the case out of court. Though the court itself cannot provide this type of advice and support, it can help pro se plaintiffs and defendants by explaining the civil lawsuit process, providing sample court forms to follow, answering questions about court deadlines and requirements, and guiding them through the process of filling out court forms.
Preparing the Civil Action Suit
To file a valid New Jersey civil suit, the plaintiff needs to have all the correct information. This information includes the name, address and telephone number for each defendant. If she does not already have all supporting documents on hand, she can take this time to build a file to take to court to support her case. Supporting evidence includes any documents that illustrate the claim’s validity, such as a copy of the breached contract and photographs of the personal property damaged. Other supporting information includes a copy of the related police report or a copy of the bounced check.
An important step in preparing to file a civil action suit in New Jersey is to budget for its associated expenses. If the claim is for damages of $3,000 or less, the filing fee is $50, and if the damages are between $3,000 and $15,000, the filing fee is $75. For each additional defendant, there is a $5 filing fee, and for every defendant, there is a $7 mailing fee. If the case goes to trial, there is also a $100 jury trial fee.
Filing the Claim With the Court
The New Jersey civil suit process begins with the plaintiff completing Special Civil Part Complaint Form (Form A) and Special Civil Part Summons (Form B). These forms can be obtained from the Office of the Special Civil Part of the court or downloaded from the court’s website. After completing these forms, the plaintiff makes a copy of each to keep for his records. Then, he attaches a check for the correct filing fee made out to Treasurer, State of New Jersey and delivers Forms A and B to the Office of the Special Civil Part of the Superior Court of the county where at least one of the defendants lives or where the business facing the civil action is headquartered.
Form A covers all relevant facts about the case, such as the plaintiff's and defendant’s names and addresses, an overview of the situation leading to the New Jersey civil suit and the damages the plaintiff is seeking. Form B, the summons, is the document the court serves to the defendants to notify them of the action and summon them to court. This form provides a brief explanation of the case as well as instructions for the defendants to follow to respond to the summons. It also informs the defendant that if she fails to respond to the summons, she automatically loses the case and may be required to pay the plaintiff’s damages.
Once Form B is delivered to the defendant, a court date is set. The defendant must answer the complaint within 35 days of receiving it. She may explain her position and why the plaintiff is not entitled to compensation or agree to resolve the dispute with the plaintiff. If the defendant takes the former action, she must submit her answer and its filing fee to the court and then wait for instructions regarding the date, time and location of a court date. If she opts to try to resolve the matter, she and the plaintiff may privately work out an agreement to resolve the case, then submit a signed copy of the agreement to the court.
Appearing in New Jersey Civil Court
With New Jersey civil suits, a court date can be set only if the court successfully serves the defendant his summons. If he cannot be located, the plaintiff must provide another address for him and pay a re-service fee within 60 days of filing the original suit. If the plaintiff does not do this, the case is dismissed, but it can be reinstated if, within one year, the plaintiff provides an address at which the defendant is found.
On the set court date, both parties arrive with evidence to support their positions. If one or both parties are relying on witness testimony of the incident to support their positions, the witness must come to court and testify orally. During the hearing, both parties provide the documents they have collected related to the case to demonstrate how they suffered – or how they did not cause the other party to suffer – financial losses.
After hearing both sides, the court may ask the two parties to resolve their dispute without a trial. Often, resolving New Jersey civil suits is done through mediation with a law clerk or another neutral third party who is qualified to conduct mediation. If this results in a settlement, both parties sign the settlement agreement and file it with the court. If not, the court schedules a civil trial to resolve the case.
Read More: Definition of Civil Court