First of all, if you are seeking money damages of over $10,000 or some other kind of relief (i.e. an injunction, which means a Court order compelling someone to do something or to stop from doing something) and are considering filing a lawsuit to achieve this, you should probably get a lawyer.
This is because, generally speaking, you only get one “crack at the apple” and so you want to get it right; the first time around.
Appeals are costly and sometimes prohibitively costly.
BUT, if you are brazen enough to do it on your own, kudos to you and here are a few tips.
You need a “cause of action” to file a lawsuit. You cannot just file a complaint and expect to see a judge right away and ask for money.
A cause of action is something like “negligence” or “breach of contract.” In a breach of contract situation, you will have typically paid for a service or a good, not received that service or good, have become damaged, and now seek reimbursement. That is a valid cause of action, you have been wronged and, now, you need either a court or a jury to make you whole.
The first step is to fill out some paperwork. If you are in Los Angeles County, for example, you will need a Civil Case Cover Sheet, a Civil Case Cover Sheet Addendum, a Summons, Complaint and the corresponding Cause of Action attachments. If your case involves complex legal issues, you will likely need to prepare a more thorough complaint on what is called pleading paper. This is because, luckily, the Judicial Council of California has developed standard forms for very common lawsuits such as personal injury and even breach of contract cases. For not-so-common lawsuits, the Judicial Council has not provided the forms because the issues are simply too complex and there is just not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to it.
There is a filing fee that is owed to the Court. This helps the Court system operate efficiently and helps pay staff and employee salaries. $435 is a very typical filing fee amount. Sometimes it is less if, for example, the amount of money damages you seek are less than $25,000.
The next step is to file your lawsuit. In the dawn of Covid, Courts have sped up the timeline to file documents electronically. Check out third-party services like Greenfiling which will help and organize your filing(s).
Once the Court processes your paperwork (which is not something that is done on the spot), you will receive a notification and your documents will be ready to download. These are what is called “conformed” documents meaning the Court will have already “stamped” them. Once you have conformed documents, you must serve them on the Defendant or Respondent. You personally cannot do this. It must be a non-party and they must be over the age of 18.
Once that is done, the Defendant or Respondent will have thirty (30) days to file an Answer/Response. If they do not, you should consider filing a Request for Entry of Default and then, after that, a Request for Entry of Default Judgment.
Typically, though, the Defendant or Respondent will file an Answer/Response and that will effectively put the case “at issue.” Once the case is at issue, you will have the benefit of the right to Discovery. This means you have the right to take depositions, propound questions and otherwise have the ability to prepare your case for trial.
Even if the case does not go to trial, because it settles, Discovery will help you “build” a case so you can establish the necessary leverage to achieve a suitable compromise.
Remember, a compromise means that you are not fully satisfied but, at the same time, neither is the other side. Trials are very risky and VERY expensive. This means that, sometimes, going to trial is really just cutting off your own nose to spite your face. The reality is that you could lose and pay the other side their fees and costs and for what? To prove a point?
If you are headed to trial, we recommend you look at your jurisdiction’s jury instructions to see exactly what you must prove to the judge or jury. This will also help you formulate a game plan in terms of your discovery plan. Remember, discovery is where you gather facts, evidence and documents to build a case for trial and/or build leverage to force a decent settlement.
We hope this blog helped you out in some way. We are here to answer any further questions you have.