How to Start a Civil Lawsuit in California


Thank you for visiting!  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.  Before reading further, it may be helpful to review our ‘Legal Glossary for Non-Attorneys.  If you do decide to move forward with your lawsuit, we highly recommend you purchase our California Civil Complaint form packet which includes more detailed instructions, form templates, and samples. 

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
  • Negligence
  • Unpaid Wages
  • Wrongful Termination
  • Race/Sex Discrimination
  • Disability Discrimination
  • Battery
  • Trespass
  • Nuisance
  • Defamation (slander/libel)

Once the elements of a claim are known, they need to be written up in a complaint.  Most complaints in California have the following format:

  1. The Plaintiff’s name and contact information goes in the top left corner.
  2. Heading with basic information about the case.
  3. A designation of whether or not the civil case is ‘limited’ or ‘unlimited’.
  4. Statement of jurisdiction.
  5. ‘Factual Allegations’, wherein the plaintiff alleges all the facts that constitute the elements of their claim.
  6. ‘Causes of Action’ where the plaintiff states how the allegations, if proven, will constitute a legally cognizable claim (such as negligence, or battery).
  7. ‘Prayer for Relief’, where the plaintiff asks the court to award a specific remedy, such as economic or non-economic damages.

Filing the Complaint and Serving the Summons

Once the complaint has been drafted, 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, the court clerk should be able to assist you in service of the summons and complaint.  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.  Without an accompanying summons, a complaint has no legal authority that requires a defendant to respond.  The clerk should be able to instruct you on how to have the sheriff or a private process server serve the summons and complaint on the defendant.  After they serve the documents on the defendant, the sheriff or professional process server should file a certificate of service with the courthouse that proves the defendant was actually served.

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’ asking for specific documents that are relevant to the case.


This is just a brief outline of how to file a civil lawsuit in California.  Of course, the details of any specific case will be slightly more complicated, but as you can see, the basic nuts and bolts of how to file a California complaint are well within the grasp of the average person.  Anyone can learn how to file a lawsuit without an attorney.  Our California Civil Complaint form packet includes more detailed instructions, as well as templates and samples.  Follow the link above or click the 'Buy Now' button at the top of this page to purchase the form packet.  Thank you for reading!