How To File A Lawsuit In California
In this article, we will go over the basics of how to file a civil lawsuit in California Superior Court (California’s general trial court) without an attorney. As you will see, the basics of filing a lawsuit in California are not nearly as complicated as they first seem. If you do decide to move forward with your lawsuit, we highly recommend you purchase our California Civil Lawsuit Form Package which includes more detailed instructions, form templates, and samples.
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1. Drafting the Complaint
As with most other states, filing a complaint is the first step to beginning a lawsuit in California. This is the document in which you lay out the allegations against the defendant and allege how you have been harmed. Keep in mind that you do not need to try and prove your allegations in the complaint. You are only alleging what happened. Of course, to ultimately prevail at trial, you will definitely need to offer evidence that supports the claims you initially make in your complaint.
However, simply alleging that you have been harmed is not quite enough. You must allege a type of harm that California specifically recognizes as a recoverable claim for relief. For example, if you trip on the sidewalk you cannot necessarily sue the city for your damages. The plaintiff will need to allege that the city (or someone else) was negligent in some manner. Perhaps the sidewalk was in a poor state of disrepair. In that case, they can likely allege that the city had a duty to keep the sidewalks in good condition, they failed to perform that duty, and as a direct result of that failure, the plaintiff was injured. Each specific aspect of a claim for relief (sometimes called a ‘cause of action’) is known as an ‘element’ of a claim. If a Plaintiff can prove each element of their claim, they should win their case. Similarly, if a plaintiff has been physically attacked by someone, they can probably bring a civil lawsuit for battery if they can allege that the person physically contacted them and they suffered harm as a result of that physical contact.
The elements used above are general examples only! A plaintiff needs to research the individual elements of any and all claims they wish to bring against a defendant and make sure they properly allege facts that, if proven, will satisfy each element of their claim (the best place to research elements of specific claims is your local law library).
Some examples of common claims for relief in California are:
- Breach of Contract
- Unpaid Wages
- Wrongful Termination
- Race/Sex Discrimination
- Disability Discrimination
- Defamation (slander/libel)
Once the elements of a claim are known, they need to be written up in a complaint in the proper format. If your complaint is not formatted correctly, it may be rejected by the court clerk! Most complaints in California have the following format:
- The Plaintiff's name and contact info goes in the upper left corner.
- Heading with basic information about the case.
- ‘Facts Alleged’, wherein the plaintiff alleges all the facts that constitute the elements of their claim.
- ‘Causes of Action’ where the plaintiff states how the allegations, if proven, will constitute a legally cognizable claim (such as negligence, or battery).
- ‘Prayer for Relief’, where the plaintiff asks the court to award a specific remedy, such as economic or non-economic damages.
2. Filing and Serving the Complaint and Summons
Once the complaint has been drafted in the proper style and format, the plaintiff will need to file it at the appropriate courthouse and pay the applicable filing fee. If a plaintiff has limited financial means, they may be able to qualify for a fee waiver/deferral and can ask the court clerk for a fee waiver application. Once the complaint has been filed, it will need to be served on the defendant.
In California, when you file your complaint, you also need to fill out a summons. The summons is the official legal notice that requires the defendant to appear and answer the charges in the complaint. The clerk should have a blank summons form available for you to fill out. You will also need to fill out a civil cover sheet.
3. Engaging in the Discovery Process
Once served, the defendant will have a certain amount of time to respond by filing an ‘Answer’ to the complaint. After an answer has been filed, both sides will engage in ’Discovery’, where they are required to disclose information to each other. These disclosures are made by each party sending the other a 'Request for Production of Documents’ wherein they ask for specific documents that are relevant to the case. Our California Civil Lawsuit Package contains forms, samples, and instructions on how to send and respond to requests for production. Discovery often includes depositions of witnesses as well.
4. Presenting your Evidence in Court
After discovery is complete, a hearing or trial will be set and both sides will present their case to a judge, jury, or private arbitrator. This includes submitting exhibits and interviewing witnesses.
Once both sides are finished presenting their claims and defenses, the judge or jury will find in favor of one party or the other.
This is a general overview of how to file a lawsuit in California. Of course, the specifics of any case can be a bit more complex, but if you understand these basic concepts, you will be able to represent yourself competently in most civil lawsuits.
The California Lawsuit Form package will show you how to file a lawsuit, send and respond to requests for production, introduce exhibits, offer objections, and interview witnesses at a hearing or trial. All without an attorney. Start your lawsuit today!