In the legal system, a “cause of action” is a set of facts or legal theory that gives an individual or entity the right to seek a legal remedy against another. This applies to the filing of a civil lawsuit for such wrongs as property damages, personal injury, or monetary loss, as well as to criminal wrongs such as battery, theft, or kidnapping. A cause of action may come from an act or failure to act, breach of duty, or a violation of rights, and the facts or circumstances of each specific case often have a significant effect on the case. To explore this concept, consider the following cause of action definition.
Definition of Cause of Action
- A condition under which one party would be entitled to sue another.
- A set of facts that, if true, entitle an individual or entity to be awarded a remedy by a court of law.
Origin of Cause
1175-1225 Middle English < from Latin causa; reason, case
Cause of Action in a Court Case
The document that is filed to begin either a civil or criminal matter in the court system is called a “complaint.” In the complaint, the person bringing the matter to court, either the party wronged in a civil action, or the prosecuting attorney in a criminal matter, outlines the alleged facts of the case, any theory by which alleged actions are wrong or illegal, as well as the relief sought from the court. It is common for the facts of a case to create more than one cause of action, each of which is addressed in the same complaint.
Specific Causes of Action
There are many specific causes of action that may be alleged in a complaint, the exact wording of which may vary from state to state, and by area of law. Some of the most commonly cited causes of action include:
- Breach of contract
- Torts (battery, assault, negligence, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, slander, invasion of privacy)
- Suits in equity (unjust enrichment, quantum meruit)
Cause of Action Elements
The facts a plaintiff must prove to win each specific cause of action are referred to as “elements.” Cause of action elements may vary greatly, or may overlap substantially, depending on the circumstances of the case. For example, elements for certain causes of action may include:
- Breach of contract
- Identity of all parties to the contract
- Identity of the breaching party
- The defendant did something, or failed to do something, required by the contract
- The defendant’s actions or inaction caused harm to the plaintiff
- A material representation was made
- The representation was false
- When the representation was made, the defendant knew it was false, or made a positive or compelling assertion without having knowledge of the truth
- The defendant made the representation with the intent of causing the plaintiff to act
- The plaintiff acted, relying on the defendant’s false representation
- The plaintiff was damaged or suffered injury because of the act or representation
- A false or offensive statement, either verbal or written, about the plaintiff was made by the defendant
- The defendant made such statement to a third party (someone other than the plaintiff)
- The defendant acted negligently or with malice in making such statement
- The plaintiff suffered damages, including damage to his reputation specifically caused by the defamatory statement
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
- The actions or conduct of the defendant were extreme and outrageous
- The defendant acted intentionally and/or recklessly
- The defendant’s actions or conduct caused severe emotional distress to the plaintiff
Answering a Complaint and Causes of Action
When an individual or entity is being sued in civil court, a copy of the complaint will be served with the Summons on the defendant. The defendant is then required to file a written response with the court within a specified time limit, usually 30 days. The defendant should respond to each cause of action or accusation in the complaint truthfully and politely. The answer should include any legal defenses or counterclaims the defendant wants the court to hear. It is important to contact the court to learn the specific format and information required on the front page of the answer, and that the answer be filed with the court when complete.
Consulting an Attorney
Whether accused of a crime or being sued in civil court, it is wise for the defendant to consult an experienced attorney who can guide them through the legal process, and help ensure his rights are protected. Civil lawsuits may be as simple as a complaint that a debt has not been repaid, or as complex as an issue of personal injury in an accident which involved multiple parties, or an accusation of fraud in a real estate or business transaction. An attorney can help navigate these complex legal waters much less perilous.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Unjust Enrichment – a legal principle that prohibits one person from profiting, or being enriched, at the expense of another person. In such a case, the unjustly enriched party may be ordered to make restitution for the reasonable value of the services rendered, property transferred or damaged, or other benefits received.
- Quantum Meruit – an order for a reasonable sum of money to be paid for services rendered when a specific amount is not stipulated in a legally enforceable contract.
- Suit in Equity – a lawsuit for which the law does not adequately address the issue at hand, in which the judge may make an order that is “fair and equitable.”
- Material Representation – a persuasive or influential statement made for the purpose of inducing someone to enter into an agreement or contract to which the person would not have agreed without the statement.
- Malice – the intention to do evil, inflict injury, or cause suffering of another.