It is useful for a resident of Pennsylvania to obtain an overview of the definition of civil cases in the state and learn about the courts in which civil lawsuits can be filed. But the actual filing of a civil case, in most instances, involves working with an attorney who undertakes the filing and pursuit of the action.
The sole exception in Pennsylvania is for small claims court, where the rules and procedures are relaxed in order to allow individuals access to the courts without an attorney.
Civil Case vs. Criminal Case
When it comes to the law, the opposite of "civil" is not uncivil, although many civil cases can feel quite uncivil to those who are being sued. Rather, the legal distinction is between civil and criminal. In Pennsylvania, as in all states, a civil case is one that is not a criminal case. And it is quite easy to distinguish between them.
A criminal case is brought against a person accused of breaking a section of the criminal code. This might be a charge as serious as murder, but could also be criminal trespassing or even driving while under the influence.
The key distinction is that the other party is the district attorney's office or a state or federal prosecutor. They represent the "People" while the person accused, termed the defendant, has a defense attorney. The prosecutor tries to convince a jury or a judge of the defendant's guilt, and the defense attorney tries to convince them of the defendant's innocence. All cases that are not criminal are civil cases.
Trial by Judge or Jury
Both criminal and civil cases must be determined by a trier of fact. This can be a judge or a jury. Juries are not available in Pennsylvania in Supreme Court or the Superior Court. They are mainly used in trials held in Courts of Common Pleas.
Types of Civil Cases
It is fortunate that it is so easy to identify a criminal case, since that allows a quick determination of whether a case is civil. Otherwise, it might be quite difficult, since there are hundreds of different types of civil cases.
Every litigation that is not criminal is civil, and civil cases include everything from eviction to probate, from automobile damage claims to malpractice suits, from small claims court to class actions with thousands of parties.
Parties to Civil Cases
Civil cases involve two parties as do criminal cases, but both parties in civil cases represent their own interests rather than representing the "People." The parties can be individuals, business entities and even government agencies.
The party that files the action is termed the plaintiff, and those being sued are called the defendants. In a family law action, these parties are sometimes referred to as the petitioner (bringing a petition) and the respondent (responding to the petition.)
Proving a Civil Case
The plaintiffs in civil cases must prove every element of their case by presenting evidence persuasive enough to convince the judge or jury. If a finder of fact determines that the plaintiff's evidence is more persuasive than the defendant's, they will find for the plaintiff.
Some types of civil cases like divorce can be heard before quasi-judicial officers, such as hearing masters or conference officers.
Courts in Pennsylvania
All states have various courts so it is important for a plaintiff to select the appropriate forum in which to file their claim. The smallest cases are heard in the Pennsylvania Minor Courts, presided over by magisterial district and municipal court judges. This includes Small Claims Court.
The next level of cases are heard in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, the general trial courts of the state. There are 60 judicial districts, and most follow county boundaries. Each court has between one and 93 judges, with a president judge and a court administrator. Family law matters are heard here.
Pennsylvania Appellate Courts
Pennsylvania has two intermediate appellate courts, the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court. The Commonwealth Court is primarily responsible for cases involving state and local governments, and regulatory agencies, and serves as a trial court when litigation is brought against the Commonwealth.
Cases are usually heard by three-judge panels in the state's larger cities – Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. However, single judges can also hear a case.
The Superior Court is the second intermediate appellate court and is often the last court to rule on a matter. While the top state court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, might grant a petition to review a Superior Court decision, they usually deny these petitions.
Superior Court cases are generally heard by panels of three judges sitting in Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Pittsburgh, but they can also be heard by a panel of nine judges.
Determining Venue for a Civil Suit
Whenever a lawsuit is to be filed in a state court, the plaintiff or their attorney must determine the court with both the proper jurisdiction and appropriate venue. Jurisdiction means that the court has legal authority to hear the case. This turns on the rules about what types of cases each court can hear, as described above.
Venue, on the other hand, is a different matter. Imagine that a case is to be filed in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, the general trial courts of the state.
Since there are 60 different judicial districts of the Court of Common Pleas, the plaintiff must learn and apply the appropriate rules of venue before filing the lawsuit. In general, venue requires a plaintiff to file their case in the judicial district where the person or company being sued is located.
When to File a Civil Case in Pennsylvania
Don't even consider filing a civil case in Pennsylvania without getting a basic knowledge of the statute of limitations restrictions. Statutes of limitations are state-specific laws that set out the window of time in which a plaintiff can bring a lawsuit.
The purpose of statutes of limitations is to make sure that cases are brought in a timely matter, before witnesses die or move, and while the evidence is still available. This is usually a matter of a few years at most.
It is not just a matter of good form to file a civil case within the window of time set out in the appropriate statute of limitations. A civil complaint will be thrown out of court if the defendant points out to the judge that the statute has run.
When a Statute of Limitations Begins
While the statute of limitations period usually begins from the time of the incident, this is not always true. Some are delayed and only begin when cause is discovered. For example, medical malpractice statute of limitations begins to run when the individual discovers the malpractice or should have discovered it.
Any individual unsure of the statute of limitations for their particular case should contact an attorney. The Pennsylvania State Bar Association can provide names of attorneys who specialize in the particular type of case.
Pennsylvania Small Claims Court
Anyone with a small claim, defined in Pennsylvania as involving an amount of $12,000 or less, can file a civil action to recover the money in Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court. But they can also file the case in Common Pleas Court.
The case must be against a specific person or business. Note that the maximum recoverable sum of $12,000 doesn't include court costs, which the defendant must pay if the plaintiff wins, or any interest.
Going to Trial Without an Attorney
While both options are possible, most people who are not represented by an attorney will do better in Magisterial District Court. These courts have low filing fees, are less formal, and the resolution is much faster.
While Pennsylvania allows plaintiffs to represent themselves in all courts in the state, handling a case in any other court than the Magisterial District Court is only a good idea for those familiar with the legal rules and procedures.
That is because state courts hold those representing themselves to the same standards as lawyers who have been admitted to the bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A self-represented party needs to understand and be able to follow both state rules and local Rules of Court.
Filing a Small Claims Court Action
To file a small claims case, a plaintiff must obtain and complete the civil complaint form from the court. This form asks for basic information about the parties, like names, addresses and contact information. It also asks how much the complaint is asking for and what the claim involves. This should be a summary of what happened, and should be written in simple language.
Once the complaint is filled out, it is time to file it with the court. Remember that the venue rules that govern which Magisterial District Court has jurisdiction to hear the matter generally require the plaintiff to file their lawsuit where the defendant is located or where the dispute or incident happened.
For example, a plaintiff suing for damages resulting from an automobile accident can sue where the accident occurred.
Filing the Civil Complaint
While it is possible to mail the complaint to the court, it's better to submit it in person so the clerk can make sure it is entirely filled out and ready to file. After that, the plaintiff pays filing fees, which are due when the complaint is submitted. There will also be a fee to serve the complaint on the defendant.
The clerk of court schedules a hearing date for the case, usually some 12 to 60 days from the date of filing. The plaintiff is required to notify the defendant about the case and the hearing date. They can ask the clerk to send the paperwork to the defendant by certified mail, or alternatively, they can opt to have it personally handled by the sheriff’s department.
The same procedure applies to filing a small claims court action in Philadelphia County, except that the plaintiff cannot file in a Magisterial District Court. Rather, plaintiffs in Philadelphia county must file with the Philadelphia County Municipal Court. This is actually easier since the complaint form can be completed and submitted online.
Filing in the Court of Common Pleas
A plaintiff can opt to file a small claim in the Court of Common Pleas. They will have to file in this court if the amount of the claim is over $12,000. To do this, it is necessary to write out a complaint – a series of numbered paragraphs setting out the claim – rather than just filling out a form.
This complaint must be filed at the Court of Common Pleas prothonotary's office, the name for the clerk's office of this court.
Once the matter is filed, the plaintiff must notify the defendants by having them served with copies of the papers. The rules and procedures in the Court of Common Pleas are more formal than those in the Magisterial District Court, so consider hiring an attorney to assist with the case.
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.