What Is a Civil Lawsuit?

Learn the basics of how civil lawsuits work, including how civil court differs from criminal court.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

A civil lawsuit involves a person or entity (like a business or government agency) suing another person or entity in court, typically for money damages. Civil cases commonly involve disputes over:

  • contracts and business deals
  • debt collection
  • property damage, and
  • personal injuries.

Civil Cases Versus Criminal Cases

Civil court differs from criminal court in a number of key ways.

Civil Suits Can Be Brought By Anyone. A civil case is usually initiated by a private party—a person or business that claims to have suffered some kind of harm or compensable losses. In contrast, criminal charges are brought against an individual accused of committing a crime, by a prosecutor or other attorney representing the government on behalf of "the people" of the state where the case is being prosecuted.

The Burden of Proof is Lower in a Civil Case. The "burden of proof" is the legal standard used to determine who wins a legal case. In a civil case, the person suing (the "plaintiff") must prove the case by a "preponderance of the evidence" (a more-likely-than-not standard). In a criminal case, the government must show the defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a much tougher standard to meet.

Civil Defendants Pay in Dollars Instead of Jail Time. Civil cases are usually about money. The person who loses a civil case (the "defendant") typically has to compensate the plaintiff for accident-related injuries and other losses (called "damages"). In some civil cases, the person filing the suit is trying to get the defendant to stop doing something, or take a certain action. Criminal cases are about punishment. The person convicted of a crime faces potential fines, probation, community service, jail or prison time, or some combination of these.

When Should You File a Civil Lawsuit?

Filing a lawsuit in civil court can be expensive and time-consuming. A lawsuit shouldn't be your first move toward resolution of a legal dispute, but you might find it to be a necessary step if, for example:

  • there's no insurance coverage that might compensate you for your losses (so the insurance claim process isn't an option)
  • you've tried resolving the legal dispute through more informal channels (even mediation) but you and the other side are too far apart
  • the person you're suing has significant assets to pay any court judgment you might receive, and
  • your losses are significant enough to make the time and effort of a lawsuit worth it.

The last two scenarios on the above list probably carry the most weight. Filing a lawsuit never makes sense if the person you're suing isn't going to be able to pay you if you end up winning in court. And if you're thinking about suing over a few thousand dollars, a civil lawsuit probably isn't worth it (though small claims court might be a good option).

Personal Injury Lawsuits Are a Type of Civil Suit

Personal injury lawsuits are some of the most common kinds of civil court cases, including those stemming from:

You start a personal injury case by filing a complaint in court. While this is one of the first steps in a personal injury lawsuit, keep in mind that the vast majority of these cases settle well before trial. And many injury claims are resolved through the insurance process before a lawsuit is even filed. Learn more about the timeline of a personal injury case and when to expect a personal injury settlement.

Watch the Statute of Limitations In a Civil Lawsuit

There are deadlines for filing civil lawsuits in court, set by laws called statutes of limitations. Every state has these laws on the books, with time limits that vary depending on the kind of case you want to file. Failure to get your lawsuit started before the deadline passes almost always means your case will be dismissed whenever you do get around to filing it. So it's crucial to understand and comply with the statute of limitations in your state. Get the details on the statute of limitations for civil cases in all 50 states (from Nolo.com).

Do You Need a Lawyer for a Civil Lawsuit?

There's no yes or no answer to this question. A lot depends on the particulars of your case (including how much is at stake) and your own willingness to fight for a fair outcome. There's no question that having an experienced lawyer on your side can make a big difference in most civil cases, but there are situations when going it alone might make sense. For a discussion of this issue through the lens of injury cases, check out our article on hiring an injury lawyer or handling your claim yourself.

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