Filing Your Own Civil Lawsuit – Steps to Handle a Legal Dispute
Accidents happen all the time in life. If you are injured as a result of someone else’s negligence or are involved in an accident, you may want to sue them and will consider filing a lawsuit against the other party. This can feel intimidating if you’ve never filed a lawsuit before, and you may be wondering where to start. The truth is, anyone can file a lawsuit.
Of course, it is always recommended to have an attorney review your case with you and discuss the best strategy for your case, but sometimes your best course of action may be to pursue your case on your own, as an individual, or as pro se litigant. Sometimes you may not need or want an attorney. In other instances, it may not be financially feasible to hire a lawyer. This article will discuss when it’s best to file a lawsuit on your own without an attorney, and how to do it.
Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by providing this information. This article is no substitute for the detailed counsel that a lawyer can provide. If you think you need a lawyer, you probably do. And if that’s the case hire one. Most lawyers will provide a free consultation before you hire them, so there is no down side to speak to an attorney when you are considering filing a lawsuit.
A Civil Lawsuit at a Glance
A civil action is any type of lawsuit when one person has a legal dispute against another. This can take many forms, whether it be a dispute between people on a promise they made together, or a divorcing couple disagreeing about the distribution of their money or property, or someone who is injured because of someone else. The most common type of civil action is a personal injury lawsuit, where the Plaintiff, or injured party, asks for compensation from the Defendant, who caused Plaintiff injury.
Negligence refers to when the Defendant should have acted differently, and as a result, caused the Plaintiff injury. As an example, imagine you are a pedestrian crossing the street at a crosswalk, and a vehicle ignores the stop sign and hits you. That vehicle should have followed the traffic signs in that situation. The law entitles you to pursue compensation against that negligent party. Civil actions typically seek monetary compensation, or damages.
Attorney or No Attorney?
The question of whether or not to hire an attorney can be answered by looking at what type of resolution you need from the court. Every lawsuit will contain a Prayer for Relief, where the Plaintiff will ask the Court for something. A Court can demand the Defendant pay monetary compensation as a result of the Plaintiff being wronged or injured in some way (damages) or the Court can issue an Order demanding that the Defendant do something (specific performance or an injunction).
One of the first questions you should ask yourself before you file a lawsuit is what exactly do you want the lawsuit to accomplish? If you have been injured, what expenses do you want compensated? Here are some expenses that might be associated with your average personal injury lawsuit:
- Medical expenses, both past and future treatment
- Lost time off of work to see your doctor
- Cost of prescription drugs or over the counter medications
- Cost of transporting yourself to and from medical appointments
- Pain and suffering associated with trauma of the accident
- Inability to participate in an activity you used to be able to
- Loss of overall quality of life
As you can see, there are many potential expenses that can stem from a single accident. You should identify all potential expenses you may have as a result of your lawsuit. This will help frame the basis of your next steps.
While each small claims case may be different, typically you will want to hire an attorney if you are seeking damages in excess of $5,000.00, or if you are seeking specific action in the form of an Order from the Court. If your case can be resolved for a small amount or has a modest value, hiring a lawyer may not make economic sense. In other words, the cost of litigating the case with a lawyer may exceed what you actually hope to recover. Hiring a lawyer is a personal choice. Sometimes pursing a lawsuit pro se is your only option.
First Steps in Initiating a Lawsuit
Once you’ve identified what you are looking for from the Court, your next step is to file a Complaint at Law. This will spell out exactly what happened in your case and how your case meets the basic requirements of a lawsuit. Depending on what jurisdiction you are in, each county will have different rules and formats about how a complaint needs to look. Your local library will likely have examples about how complaints in your jurisdiction are formatted. Here is an example of a Complaint in Cook County, Illinois:
There are a few basic requirements for filing a complaint. A Plaintiff must be at least 18 years of age to file a lawsuit on their own behalf. Any parent or guardian of a child may file a lawsuit on a minor’s behalf. In your complaint, you will want to identify:
- Who you are suing
- Why you are suing them (What cause of action are you pursuing? e.g. negligence, breach of contract, etc. Specific allegations for each cause of action are required.)
- How much you are suing them for
You should try and put as much information as possible that might pertain to your case in this complaint, as this is your first opportunity to present the facts of your case to the Court. For example, if you are suing someone for scratching your car and causing a small dent, you should identify where your vehicle was, what time and day it was when it was scratched, the name of the Defendant, how your vehicle was scratched, and the estimated cost of fixing the scratch. If you need assistance in drafting your Complaint, a free attorney consultation may be able to assist you or you can seek assistance from the Pro Se Filing Desk at your local courthouse.
Filing Fees when You Prepare Your Lawsuit Yourself
You will need to pay a filing fee in order to set your case in motion, as well as a service fee. Your fee will scale with the total amount of damages you are seeking:
- $0.01 to $250.00: $119.00
- $250.01 to $1,000.00: $172.00
- $1,000.01 to $2,500.00: $177.00
- $2,500.01 to $3,000.00: $227.00
- $3,000.00 to $15,000.00: $379.00
This filing fee, once paid, will generate a docket number for your case which will be used as a reference number for the duration of your lawsuit. Each local jurisdiction is going to have its own fee schedule. When you file your lawsuit, you will need to check the filing costs. In some instances the cost may be waived by the court if you can show economic hardship.
The second fee you will need to pay is called a “Service Fee.” Once you file your lawsuit, you will want the Defendant to formally appear in your case and acknowledge the claim against them. This is done by notifying the Defendant through Service of Process, where a copy of the Complaint is sent directly to them and they are given a chance to respond to your allegations. Service of Process can be achieved through a number of ways:
- Service by certified mail against an individual: $12.30
- Service by certified mail against a single corporation: $20.59
- Service through the Sheriff: $60.00 per Defendant
You should verify with your local courthouse what service efforts are required and or accepted for your specific case. In addition, you should know and understand that filing fees change from time to time.
Once paid, the Court will then send a copy of your Complaint, along with a Summons to the Defendant’s last known address. You should try and verify that you have an accurate address for the Defendant you are suing before you file a lawsuit to ensure that they are properly notified.
Step by Step Video Guide to E-File a Chicago Personal Injury Lawsuit
How to File a Civil Lawsuit Online in Illinois
Now that you have all the basic requirements for filing a lawsuit, it’s time to put your lawsuit in motion. Most jurisdictions have the option of e-filing your case online, although you always have the option of filing your case in person at the courthouse. Pro Se Filing Desk staff can assist you in preparing your documents. You will need to file three separate documents: Your Complaint, a Summons for the Defendant, and a Civil Action Cover Sheet. You can visit the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County for examples of fillable court forms, or Illinois Legal Aid Online. Here is an example of a Summons cover and a Civil Action Cover Sheet:
Once you have all these documents ready, you are ready to file your case. Odyssey eFile is one of the most common portals for filing legal cases electronically. You will need to register for a new account and provide billing information to pay for your filing. Here is a step by step guide to filing your lawsuit online with descriptions of the forms you’ll need to complete.
Filing a Lawsuit Online – Step 1
Select Start a New Case to begin your filing process.
Filing a Lawsuit Online – Step 2
Select your location.
If you are filing a Small Claims case, this will be heard in the First Municipal District of Cook County.
You should ensure you are filing in the proper courthouse before filing. Just like the filing fees, the proper courthouse will depend on the total amount of your damages. Damages under $30,000 will be heard in the Municipal District. Cases with damages in excess of $30,000 are heard in the Law Department.
You should then select what type of case will be heard. This will entirely depend on the nature of your lawsuit. For this example, we are filing a personal injury lawsuit as a result of a motor vehicle accident.
Filing a Lawsuit Online – Step 3
You will then be asked to create a reference number for your filing. This is different from the docket number that will ultimately get generated. Select Cook County Attorney/Self-Represented Code from the drop down menu and type in 99500 as your Pro Se filing code. Add this Cross Reference Number and Save Changes to continue.
Filing a Lawsuit Online – Step 4
You will then be asked to input contact information for yourself, the Plaintiff, and the Defendant you are suing. This information will also be used for Service of Process, so be sure your information is accurate before proceeding.
Filing a Lawsuit Online – Step 5
Finally, you will need to upload your documents. Select Complaint / Petition from the filing code drop down menu and then hit the Upload button to select your Complaint. You should then do the same for your Summons and Civil Action Cover Sheet.
Once you’ve then paid your filing fees and paid your documents, your case has officially been filed, and you have satisfied your initial pleading requirements as a Plaintiff.
Feeling Lost? Consult with an Attorney for Free!
As you can see, there are many steps to be aware of even during the initial stages when you file a lawsuit. Moreover, filing the lawsuit is just the first step. There are many more steps to take after this in the legal process that can be very difficult to navigate. However, as long as you come prepared with the necessary information, anyone can file a lawsuit on their own with or without the assistance of an attorney.
When you decide you want to sue, you may find yourself getting stuck looking for an answer to a question about how to pursue your civil case. You should always consult with an attorney before taking legal action to discuss your case and get counsel on your best move forward. An attorney can advise whether it would be best to proceed pro se or whether the complexity of your case requires an attorney.
Contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at The Kryder Law Group for a free consultation on your case and to get answers to your questions about civil cases and the civil litigation process.