Civil actions are legal actions between two private parties, whether individuals or business entities. The other half of the court process involves criminal actions, brought by a state or federal prosecutor charging individuals with criminal activity.
While criminal cases seek to impose penalties like jail or prison terms on a convicted individual, most civil actions seek financial compensation for injuries caused by another person or entity.
Suing in a New Jersey State Court
Through the New Jersey civil lawsuit process, it is possible for a private individual to recover compensation for losses suffered through another party’s actions or through a government agency’s actions.
However, the only court in which individuals without legal experience typically represent themselves is the Small Claims Section of the Special Civil Part Court. This court is designed to provide a quick and inexpensive forum in which individuals can resolve their claims without hiring an attorney. The court hears only cases where the plaintiff is seeking a specified, limited amount in damages.
Civil Actions vs. Criminal Actions
The universe of court actions in New Jersey is divided into two hemispheres: civil cases and criminal cases. One of the primary differences between a civil action and a criminal action is who brings the case.
In a civil case, an individual, on their own or with an attorney, can file suit against another individual, government agency or business entity. Most civil cases seek financial damages for injuries caused by negligent or deliberate actions taken by another.
While a private person can file a civil suit, only a prosecutor or a district attorney can file a criminal action. The prosecutor or district attorney represents "the people of New Jersey," so these cases are titled People vs. Defendant's Name.
A criminal defendant faces criminal penalties like fines, jail or prison time, probation, and/or victim restitution. A defendant in a civil suit, faces only the possibility of having to compensate the plaintiff for her losses.
Proving the Case
Another important difference between a civil suit and a criminal suit is the burden of proof – who has to prove what in the case. In a criminal case, the defendant can be convicted only if the prosecutor convinces the judge or a jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The criminal burden of proof is much tougher than the civil burden of proof in New Jersey.
In a civil case, the person bringing the case is called the plaintiff. The plaintiff has to show that it is more likely than not that the defendant was responsible for the damages. This standard of proof is termed "preponderance of evidence." In a civil case, the plaintiff has to demonstrate that it is more likely than not that the defendant was responsible for the plaintiff's damages.
Types of New Jersey Civil Suits
Every New Jersey case that is not a criminal case is a civil case. Most are handled by the Special Civil Part of the Law Division of the Superior Court. A great number of different kinds of civil claims are handled by this section. Many of these cases seek money damages for accidents or incidents, including:
- Motor vehicle accidents.
- Bicycle accidents.
- Slip and fall accidents.
- Premises liability.
- Debts like unpaid rent.
- Tenant security deposit issues.
- Credit card debt.
- Defective merchandise.
- Faulty or incomplete work.
- Bad checks.
Situations related to professional malpractice, like legal or medical malpractice; divorce-related matters, like family support and child custody; and probate-related matters are not handled by the Special Civil Part of the Law Division of the Superior Court. Although these are civil matters in New Jersey, they are handled by other court divisions.
Which Civil Court Division?
Different divisions of the Special Civil Part court handle different types of civil lawsuits. New Jersey civil action lawsuits filed under the jurisdiction of the Special Civil Part of the Superior Court include three specific types of claims. Where to file the action depends in part on whether money is at issue and, if so, how much.
- Special Civil Part Court: Civil claims where the plaintiff seeks $20,000 or less in compensation are heard in the regular Special Civil Part Court. By filing in this court, the plaintiff waives their right to recover damages of over $20,000, regardless of the actual value of the claim.
- Small Claims Section of the Special Civil Part Court: This court hears cases where the plaintiff is seeking $3,000 or less in damages, or $5,000 or less if the compensation is for an unpaid rent security deposit.
- Law Division Civil Court of the New Jersey Superior Court: When a plaintiff is asking for $20,000 or more in damages, the claim must be filed with the Law Division.
- General Equity Division of Superior Court: Judges in this court hear civil cases in which monetary damages are requested like those involving trade secrets, labor matters and foreclosures.
Eviction cases filed by landlords to repossess their leased units are handled by the Landlord/Tenant section of the Special Civil Part Superior Court. This is the case no matter how much the landlord is seeking in damages from the tenants.
Venue and Civil Action Suits
Civil action suits must be filed with the Special Civil Part Court in the appropriate county. This is called venue. A suit must be filed either in the county where at least one of the defendants lives or, if the defendant is a business, in the county where the business is located.
For example, if a landlord with property in Ocean County, New Jersey, finds damages in their rental unit, they may file a civil action against the renter or lessee to pursue compensation to repair the damage. If the renter lives in Essex County, the homeowner must file the claim with the Essex County Special Civil Court despite the fact that the damage occurred in Ocean County.
Attorney Is Not Required
There is no law in New Jersey that requires an individual to hire an attorney before filing a civil action lawsuit. Anyone is free to file a lawsuit on their own, and to represent themselves in court. This is called pro se representation. A primary attraction of self-representation in a legal proceeding is to save money on attorney fees, which can otherwise make an action prohibitively expensive.
Self-Representation or Hire an Attorney?
That said, many individuals who file civil action suits find the New Jersey civil lawsuit process to be confusing, and the required procedures difficult to understand and follow. Unless the filing is in Small Claims Court, it may be the better course to hire civil litigation attorneys to represent the plaintiff's interests. This can provide an increased chance that the lawsuit will be successful.
First, an experienced attorney can assist a client to determine whether filing a lawsuit is worth the expense and whether it is the best way to resolve the matter. Although any individual with a legitimate claim is free to file a civil action suit in New Jersey, not every situation is well-served by jumping into litigation. Settling a matter amicably out of court is a cheaper resolution, and having professional legal assistance can increase the chances of an out-of-court settlement.
Second, if the case does go to court, an attorney will be familiar with the New Jersey civil lawsuit process, knows what forms to file and what rules to follow. A litigant that represents themselves needs to learn not only what papers to file but all of the procedural rules. Failure to follow civil rules of procedure in New Jersey can result in a case being thrown out of court or sanctions placed against the party.
Small Claims Court Procedures
The only court that has informal procedures is Small Claims Court. This court is friendly to self-representing litigants and may be a good choice as long as the amount of damages requested is within the very low damages limit.
Filing Suit in Small Claims Court
The Small Claims Section of the Special Civil Part Court is the one court in New Jersey designed to be used by individuals without legal training and without attorneys. Rules and procedures have been deliberately simplified in order to make this a quick and relatively inexpensive way to resolve a claim for a small amount of money without an attorney.
Note that Small Claims is one of three sections in the Special Civil Part Court and can only be used if the total amount of damages sought is $3,000 or less. Typical types of cases filed in this court include:
- Breach of contract, written or oral.
- Return of loaned money.
- Property damage resulting from a motor vehicle accident (most personal injury claims exceed the $3,000 limit).
- Damage to, or loss of, property.
- Consumer complaints for defective merchandise.
- Payment for work performed.
- Claims for repayment of bad checks.
- Back rent due.
- Return of a tenant's security deposit (This is the sole claim that can exceed $3,000 in Small Claims Court, but it cannot exceed $5,000.)
To file a case in Small Claims Court in New Jersey, a person must be 18 years of age or older. Those under 18 must have the complaint filed by a parent or guardian. To get started, obtain a Small Claims summons and complaint form and instructions. These are available from the New Jersey courts website but also from any New Jersey Special Civil Part Office.
Information Required in Complaint
When filling out the form, the plaintiff must insert into the complaint:
- Their name and contact information.
- Name and contact information of each defendant.
- Status of any business entity defendant, such as a sole proprietorship, a partnership or a corporation.
- Amount of money sought.
- Reason for the claim.
- Whether there are any outstanding cases involving the same parties and, if so, the court in which they are filed.
Filing the Paperwork with the Court Clerk
After this, the plaintiff must sign and date the form, pay the filing and service fees, and file the complaint with the Office of the Special Civil Part in an appropriate county, where at least one defendant lives or does business. If none of the defendants live or are located in New Jersey, the complaint should be filed in the county where the accident or incident resulting in the claim occurred.
It is easiest to file the completed documents electronically through Judiciary Electronic Document Submission. However, they can also be filed by mail or hand delivery to the appropriate Special Civil Part Office.
Filing fees are $35 for one defendant, plus an extra $5 for each additional defendant. The court will send each defendant a copy of the documents by certified and regular mail for a fee of $7 per defendant. Any check or money order must be made payable to the Treasurer, State of New Jersey.
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.