civil court lawsuits
Common Court Documents
Civil lawsuit files contain a wide variety of documents and information depending on the nature of the actions.
In superior court and federal court cases, the documents filed in the case commonly will include:
- Civil Complaint
- Proof of Service
- Answer to the Complaint
- Attorneys' Names
- Amended Complaint
- Memorandum of Points and Authorities
- Restraining Orders and Injunctions
- Dismissal, Judgment or Verdict
This is the initial lawsuit that summarizes the plaintiff's contentions in the civil action and what damages are being sought against the defendant.
Attached to the complaint often are exhibits, which are documents that support the contentions in the lawsuit.
Thus a copy of a contract might be attached in a dispute over whether someone performed what was required in the contract. Or declarations by the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney might be attached, in which they describe the circumstances that prompted the lawsuit.
Sample civil complaints:
- Courtney Love Sued Over Rehab Bill, The Smoking Gun
- J.D. Salinger Sues Over "Catcher" Sequel, The Smoking Gun
- Couple Sues Google Over "Street View", The Smoking Gun
When a lawsuit is filed, a notice must be "served" on (that is, given to) the defendant, usually by a prefessional "process server" hired by the plaintiff (the plaintiff cannot serve the notice, an must use some other third party to do it).
A "proof of service" document is then filed in the court case stating when the defendant was served with a notice of the lawsuit and the address at which the defendant was served (usually a business address).
When other documents subsequently are filed in a lawsuit, those similarly must be served on the defendant or plaintiff and proof of service notices filed in the court case.
Some of the documents can be served on the other party by mail, but the initial complaint usually has to be served on the defendant in person.
This is a document filed by the defendant responding to the allegations of the plaintiff.
This often is just a blanket denial of all the plaintiff's claims, at least in the initial response.
This is a common response to a civil lawsuit in which rather than providing a detailed denial of the facts of the case, the defendant instead alleges there are no legal grounds for the lawsuit and it therefore should be dismissed.
The names of the attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants will be listed at the top of the various court filings.
The original civil complaint will list the name of the attorney for the plaintiff. The answer to the complaint will list the attorney for the defendant.
Included in both cases will be the attorneys' contact information.
These listings for the attorneys will be repeated at the top of subsequent court filings. The names of attorneys may change if one party or another substitutes a new attorney. A notice of a change of attorney also will be in the court file.
An amended complaint often is filed later in a case.
An amended complaint updates the original complaint and may add or drop causes of action, or add the names of additional defendants.
You'll need to carefully compare an amended complaint to the original complaint to see what has changed.
More than one amended complaint also may be filed - second amended complaint, third amended complaint, and so on - each of which will update the previously amended complaint and state the most current allegations in the case.
These documents sometimes are filed by one or more of the defendants in a case. In a cross-complaint the defendant usually blames someone else for whatever was alleged by the plaintiff, and the defendant claims he/she was harmed by that person's actions.
These complaints are filed against "cross defendants," who may be other third parties or even the original plaintiff.
Thus if a customer at a restaurant sues the restaurant because he got sick after eating there, the restaurant may file a cross-complaint against the company that supplied the food, alleging that company was responsible for the customer's illness and the restaurant was harmed by the food supply company's actions.
These cross-complaints do not become separate legal cases. They remain part of the original lawsuit and are handled by the same judge dealing with the original lawsuit.
Sample cross complaints:
- Sample cross complaint in personal injury case (pdf)
- California State Controller Files Cross-Complaint Charging DPA Pay Letter is Illegal (pdf) (see background on this case)
This are sworn statements submitted in support of the original civil complaint, answers to complaints, amended complaints, etc. They often are by the parties to the lawsuit, describing their first-hand knowledge of the facts of the case.
- Sample declaration (pdf file)
These are written questions submitted by one party in the suit that are answered under oath by the other party. They are part of the "discovery" process in which both sides query the other to try to unearth the facts of the case.
These documents are transcripts of interviews conducted under oath of people involved in the case. They also are part of the discovery process.
The depositions often contain a lot of biographical information on the people, as well as questions and answers about the allegations in the lawsuit.
Depositions are conducted by attorneys for the plaintiffs or attorneys for the defendants in a civil action. The people deposed usually are the plaintiffs, the defendants, and relevant witnesses or experts.
In the public court record you usually will only find official notices that depositions were taken or perhaps excerpts of some of the depositions. So you may have to ask the attorneys involved in the case if they'll let you see a complete transcript of a deposition.
- Paris Hilton, American Treasure, The Smoking Gun
These are documents filed in connection with legal issues that come up in a case as it progresses.
While they are mainly arguments about legal points, they also often include succinct summaries of the facts of the case, laying out clearly what exactly is in dispute.
These are documents signed by a judge that order one side or the other in a civil case to not engage in a particular action.
A restraining order, often called a temporary restraining order or TRO, is usually granted by a judge when immediate action is needed to prevent one of the parties in a lawsuit from doing something that would harm the other (this could be physical harm or something that would adversely affect the civil case).
An injunction involves a more deliberative process in which immediate action is not necessary and both sides thus are given the opportunity to argue more fully whether the injunction is warrranted or not.
A judge may grant a preliminary injunction, while a case is ongoing, or a permanent injunction, usually after a case has reached a conclusion. In either case, the party that is the subject of the injunction is "enjoined" or barred from engaging in a particular action.
- Sample Temporary Restraining Order (pdf)
- Sample Temporary Restraining Order - Domestic Violence (pdf)
- Sample Preliminary Injunction (pdf) (this is part of an Order Appointing Receiver filing. Go to the end of the document to see the preliminary injunction portion)
These are the documents filed in the court record describing the final outcome of a case (unless it is appealed).
These judgments or dismissals can take several forms:
1. A default judgment by a judge in favor of the plaintiff, if the defendant fails to contest the case.
2. A dismissal by a judge of the plaintiff's case, if the judge concludes the plaintiff's case is without merit.
- Sample Dismissal - Judge Bounces "Birther" Lawsuit, Smoking Gun
3. An out-of-court settlement of a case, in which the plaintiff and defendant agree to a settlement. This is a very common resolution, and a dismissal notice will be filed by one of the parties stating the case has been settled.
Settlement dismissals usually contain little or no information about the details of the settlement. Here again, you'll have to check with the attorneys involved to see if they'll disclose the terms of the settlement.
A dismissal also can take two forms:
- With prejudice - which means the plaintiff is barred from filing a new lawsuit based on the same claim.
- Without prejudice - which means the plaintiff can still file a new lawsuit based on the same claim, such as if the defendant does not carry through on the terms of the settlement.
4. A jury verdict or a judgment by a judge after a civil trial. Thus the jury or judge will rule in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant, or often a mix of the two - with rulings in favor of some of the plaintiff's claims in a lawsuit, and against other claims in the lawsuit.
The legal standard for a verdict in a civil case is that the plaintiff must have a preponderance of the evidence supporting his/her claim for the jury or judge to rule in favor of the plaintiff.
In the case of a jury trial in a civil case, usually 12 people are selected for a jury, and three fourths of them must agree on a verdict.
A civil trial can be held before a judge, rather than a jury, if both parties agree. This is often referred to as a court trial.
In the case of either a trial by a jury or by a judge, a judgment form will be filed in the court record stating how the jury or judge ruled on each of the individual allegations (which are called "causes of action") in the lawsuit.
The form also will list the damages awarded, if any, to the plaintiffs.
There are usually two types of damages awarded in a civil case:
- Actual damages - the actual monetary losses suffered by a plaintiff.
- Punitive damages - a monetary penalty punishing the defendant for malicious or egregious conduct.
- Sample judgment (pdf)