Civil Lawsuit

A civil lawsuit is a legal process by which a person or entity can hold another person or entity liable for some wrong, injury, or damage. If the party who filed the lawsuit is successful in court, the other party may be ordered to pay monetary damages, or he may gain some other advantage. There are many reasons for, and topics of, civil lawsuits in the United States. To explore this concept, consider the following civil lawsuit definition.

Definition of Civil Lawsuit


  1. A non-criminal court case involving a dispute between private parties, businesses, or entities, and seeking payment for damages or an order for a party to perform certain duties and obligations.

What is a Civil Lawsuit

A civil lawsuit is a judicial proceeding that arises when an individual or entity files a petition seeking payment from another individual or entity for some wrong. In general, the party filing the lawsuit (the “plaintiff”) claims that another person or entity (the “defendant”) is legally responsible for some type of damages caused by the defendant’s wrongful acts.

Civil lawsuits can be brought for many types of situation, such as contract disputes, evictions, injuries sustained through negligence or recklessness, and unpaid debts. When a person files a civil lawsuit, a civil trial takes place in which a judge or jury decides whether the defendant wronged the plaintiff and whether damages should be awarded.

Filing a Civil Lawsuit

The most common method used for asserting and defending civil rights, including property rights, contract rights, and other non-criminal issues is the filing of a civil lawsuit. The first step to filing a civil lawsuit is to determine whether there has been some harm or damage due to a legally recognized wrong. The next step is to complete the necessary documents and file them with the civil court. This can often be done simply by filling out the Summons and Complaint forms, providing the information the forms request. In a more complex case, it may be necessary to complete a more comprehensive statement of the situation then the Complaint form allows. These are submitted as pleadings attached to the Complaint form.

In any case, a Complaint must include an identification of all parties involved, a detailed description of the wrong committed by the defendant, the damages suffered by the plaintiff, and a prayer for relief, which is a statement of what the plaintiff wants to get out of the lawsuit. Once the appropriate documents have been filed, a copy of them must be personally served on the defendant. This can be done by a registered process server, or by any person over the age of 18, who is not involved with the lawsuit in any capacity. A document referred to as a Proof of Service must be filled out and signed by the individual who served the documents. Filing the Proof of Service tells the court the date, time, and place of the service, and that the case can now move forward.

After being served with a civil lawsuit, the defendant has a limited amount of time to respond by filing an Answer with the court. The defendant’s Answer allows him to admit or deny the claims in the Complaint. If the defendant fails to file an Answer within the allotted time, the court may award the plaintiff a default judgment. If the civil lawsuit has been filed in small claims court, the trial date is set immediately. For a more complex case filed in regular civil court, there is a somewhat lengthy process of gathering information, evidence, and witnesses that must occur before the parties request a trial date.

For example:

Natalie has a professional stylist named Nancy color her hair strawberry blonde. When she gets home and looks closely in the mirror, Natalie can see that there is a green tint to her hair, and a couple of days later, her hair begins breaking off. Natalie asks Nancy for a refund so she can have a different stylist fix the disaster, but the stylist refuses.

Natalie files a civil lawsuit in small claims court, asking the court to award her the amount she paid to have her hair colored, plus an additional amount necessary to have the problem dealt with. Natalie files her complaint with the court, then have her friend Stephanie personally hand a copy of the court papers to Nancy.

Instructions contained in the summons and complaint tell Nancy that she has 20 days in which to file her response, and that, if she fails to do so, the court will award a default judgment in favor of Natalie. In addition to these instructions, the summons contains the trial date for this small claims matter.

Civil Lawsuits vs. Criminal Cases

There are key differences between civil lawsuits and criminal cases. Any private party, including individuals, and other entities, which has suffered damages, can file a civil lawsuit. In a civil case, the burden of proof is less stringent than in a criminal case. The outcome of a civil case is usually an award of monetary damages, but may also be an order for the opposing party to perform a specified act, or to refrain from engaging in a specified act.

For example:

John enters into a contract with a lumberyard to receive a set amount of lumber at an agreed upon price. The lumberyard fails to deliver the lumber to John, and he ends up having to purchase it from another company at a higher price. John files a civil lawsuit against the lumberyard seeking to recoup the money he is out because of the lumberyard’s breach of contract. At trial, the court rules in favor of John, ordering the lumberyard to reimburse John the full amount he paid them, as well as the price difference between the lumberyard and the new supplier.

On the other hand, a prosecutor, often the District Attorney’s Office, must file charges against an individual in a criminal case. The purpose of a criminal case is not to see that a victim is compensated for wrongs committed by the accused, but to seek justice and punishment for the criminal. While a defendant’s liability in a civil lawsuit must be proven to be more likely than not, criminal charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The outcome of a successful criminal case may include fines, restitution, probation, or imprisonment. It is possible that an individual facing criminal charges may also be subject to a civil lawsuit filed by the victim or his family over the same acts.

For example:

Mary gets behind the wheel of her car to drive home after party in which everyone was drinking heavily. On her way home, Mary’s car crosses the center line and hits another vehicle, seriously injuring its driver. Mary is immediately arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

This is Mary’s second DUI offense, and the prosecutor’s office files felony criminal charges against her. Mary takes a plea bargain in which she pled guilty, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, her license is suspended for two years, and she is ordered to attend an alcohol treatment program. The driver of the other vehicle files a civil lawsuit against Mary, seeking payment for medical bills, as well as for time off at work while her injuries healed, the amount needed to repair her car. The plaintiff in this personal injury lawsuit also asks for a monetary award for her pain and suffering.

Such a civil lawsuit may be filed whether or not there has been a conviction of the criminal charges. It may be filed while the criminal matter is still pending, or it may be filed after it has ended. In some cases, having certain evidence proven at a criminal trial may make proving the defendant’s actions, as well as the damages, easier.

What are Damages

The term damages refers to whatever is awarded to a plaintiff when a judge or jury determines at trial that he has been wronged by the defendant. The court may award damages for a variety of things, though some types of damages are more common that others. It is not unusual for more than one type of damages be awarded in a single case.

  • Compensatory Damages – awarded as compensation for a plaintiff’s losses caused by the defendant’s wrongful acts. Compensatory damages may be awarded for a variety of monetary losses and property damages.
  • Punitive Damages – awarded for the purpose of punishing the defendant for an egregious or intentional act. The concept behind punitive damages is to deter the defendant from engaging in the same type of behavior in the future.
  • Special Damages – awarded for non-monetary damages, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, or loss of irreplaceable items.

Civil Lawsuit and Criminal Charges in Clothing Factory Fire

In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York caught fire. The fire, which started in a pile of oil-covered rags, raged through the eighth floor of the nine-floor building, where several hundred women, teenage girls, and immigrants worked. The rooms were overcrowded and the exit doors were locked to keep the women inside during the workday. As the fire quickly spread to devour hanging patterns, scraps of fabric, and wooden tables, the smoke became thick, and the heat unbearable. Amidst the screams of terrified workers, one male worker began throwing buckets at the already out of control fire.

The fire quickly spread upward, and, with no way out except to jump from the roof, and no functioning fire equipment, 146 employees, most of them women, died. So much tragedy occurred in the 20 minutes or so it took to ultimately put the fire out, leaving behind mounds of bodies for police and hospital workers to dig through, looking for signs of survivors. When fire chief, Edward Croker, told the press that the doors to the work spaces were locked, and his men had to chop their way through to get to the fire, the public was outraged. Allegations of negligence in the New York City Building Department’s inspection duties flew through the city, and calls for justice against the City as well as the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck.

A grand jury was convened, and both Harris and Blanck were charged with manslaughter. During the trial, emotions of the victims’ family members ran so hot that extra police had to be called in to maintain order. Shocking testimony of many witnesses described the policy of keeping the doors locked to prevent employees from stealing shirtwaists, that there was only one rickety fire escape, and that the management routinely failed to enforce a no smoking in the building policy. However, the judge instructed the jury that the defendants could only be found guilty of manslaughter if they knew that the doors were locked at the time of the fire, that the locked doors caused the women’s deaths, all beyond a reasonable doubt. After only two hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Harris and Blanck.

Although the men would face no criminal consequences for their blatantly negligent acts, the families of 23 victims joined together in filing civil lawsuits against the men and their company. On March 11, 1914, about three years after the fire, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but each family was awarded only about $75.00 per victim in damages. This terrible tragedy saw the beginning of federal labor and factory oversight and inspections.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Actual Damages – Money awarded to compensate someone for actual monetary or property losses. Also referred to as “compensatory damages,” the amount of money awarded is based on the proven loss, injury, or harm proven by the plaintiff.
  • Contract – An agreement between two or more parties in which a promise is made to do or provide something in return for a valuable benefit.
  • Criminal Proceeding – A legal process to prosecute an individual charged with the commission of a crime.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Default Judgment – A judgment entered against a party who has failed to respond to a lawsuit or other legal action against him.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Judgement – A formal decision made by a court in a lawsuit.
  • Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
  • Liable – Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
  • Monetary Damages – A court order awarding a specified amount of money to a person for damages suffered due to the acts of another.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Prayer for Relief – The portion of a civil lawsuit complaint in which the plaintiff describes the relief sought.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.