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Date Modified: September 9, 2023

Let’s explore the basics of a civil action, how civil suits work, and how a civil case differs from a criminal case with Ehline Law and our personal injury attorneys.

What Is a ‘Civil Action’?

A civil action is a legal proceeding between two or more parties where one party, the plaintiff, sues the other party, the defendant, for damages. The plaintiff can bring the civil action in state or federal court, depending on the nature of the civil case.

  • Video Transcript - What Is a ‘Civil Action’?

    Video Transcript - What Is a ‘Civil Action’?

    "0:00 What is a civil action? A civil action is

    0:04 any action in which the civil courts are

    0:07 utilized as opposed to a criminal court.

    0:11 In a civil action, the civil defendant sues

    0:15 the wrongdoer or breacher if it’s a case

    0:18 of breach of contract for example in a

    0:21 civil court by filing a civil lawsuit on

    0:24 a complaint. A summons is then issued by

    0:28 a court in the complaint, and the civil

    0:30 summons are then served upon the

    0:33 wrongdoer or tort feasor or damaging

    0:35 party or injuring party and at that

    0:37 point he will be held to answer in a

    0:39 civil court. [Music]"

Types of Civil Suits in Civil Court

A wide range of civil cases are heard in civil court, and these may include:

  • Tort claims: Tort cases pertain to all those cases that involve injuries, property damage, fraud, violation of civil rights, and defamation, among others, for which the plaintiff receives monetary compensation for the losses suffered.
  • Breach of contract: Whether it is a written contract or a verbal one, all parties included in the contract must abide by its terms and conditions. Failing to do so results in a breach of contract, allowing one party to take the other to court.
  • Equitable claims: These types of claims require the court to order action or stop one, and these can also be joined with monetary demands. Such orders can include the court halting the destruction of property or the sale of land.
  • Landlord-tenant claims: One of the most common types of disputes in civil courts, landlord-tenant claims can occur when a landlord illegally evicts a tenant or does not return their security deposit. The landlord can also sue the tenant for money owed if the tenant causes damage to the property more than the security deposit.

The plaintiff must file a complaint with the civil court to bring a civil action against another party, pay the filing fee, and serve them a copy of that complaint. In the complaint, the plaintiff must mention details about why they wish to bring the civil action, the damages or injuries incurred, and how the defendant caused harm, and ask the court to assist with the case and provide relief.

In most civil suits, the party requests monetary compensation for the damages or injuries sustained. However, in some civil suits, they can ask the court to stop the defendant from conducting actions that are harming the plaintiff. The court can also enforce the plaintiff’s declaration of legal rights in some civil actions.

Personal Injury Lawsuits Are One Type of Civil Suit

Injured victims may bring a civil action against the negligent party to recover damages. A personal injury lawsuit is a civil lawsuit and can arise from car accidents, slip, and fall accidents, medical malpractice, and other types of accidents.

Stages of a Civil Case

Every court has different rules, and depending on where the plaintiff files a civil case, the rules of that court will determine how the civil suit moves forward.

Typically, the following are the stages of most civil lawsuits.

Pre-filing Stage

The pre-filing stage of a civil lawsuit is when the dispute arises. In most cases, the parties gather information and negotiate a settlement to avoid heading to trial, as these can be expensive and time-consuming. However, if there is no mutual agreement between the parties, they prepare to go to court to let the judge or jury decide the case’s outcome.

Important things in this stage for the plaintiff involve researching the case, determining the party they wish to sue, and the court that has jurisdiction over their civil suit so that the plaintiff can file a complaint in the relevant court.

Pleading Stage

During this stage, the injured party or the party that wishes to sue another must file a complaint to start the legal process, and when the defendant receives the complaint, they must respond to it within a short period.

The defendant can negotiate a resolution, file an answer, file a motion to dismiss, counter-sue the plaintiff, or do nothing. If they choose to do nothing, it would be a default judgment against the defendant, and the plaintiff would win.

Case Preparation

During this stage, the parties build a case against each other. In some cases, there may be “discovery” that allows parties to request information from each other, identify witnesses, and exchange evidence.

The main goal of discovery is to collect as much information about the case and the other party to prepare for trial. Parties may also discuss with the court and request a ruling on the boundaries of the evidence that they can collect during the discovery period.

Litigants can also reach out to witnesses, get recorded statements, and ask relevant questions they can use during the trial. The witness answers the questions asked by the attorney under oath and in front of a court reporter who takes down the conversation word for word.

The Discovery stage allows parties to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing party. It also aids the parties in evaluating the settlement. Any evidence they find that supports their claim can strengthen their position to request a higher settlement offer.

In cases where the defendant refuses to comply with requests for information, the plaintiff can go to court and request a court order to ask the other side to adhere to the discovery request.

Pre-trial Stage

During this stage, the plaintiff has already built a case against the defendant, collected the necessary evidence, and recorded witness statements. This means that the party is ready to go to trial.

However, once the parties go to trial, it can be months or even years before the judge or jury decides the case, so the doors of negotiations open again.

There are many forms of alternative dispute resolution, including negotiation, facilitation, mediation, and conciliation. However, the case will proceed to trial if there is no settlement agreement.

The court will schedule a trial, but it is important to note that not all trials have a jury present, and those that want a jury trial have the right under the Constitution to request it.

Trial Process

Depending on the case’s complexity, it could last a couple of hours or even months. The judge determines the information that the parties can present in the courtroom. The witnesses are often kept outside of the courtroom until it’s their turn to take the stand and testify.

If one attorney invites a witness to say something that may not be in their knowledge, the opposing attorney can object to it, and the judge can then overrule or sustain the objection.

When the judge sustains an objection, the witness does not have to answer, and the attorney moves on to the next question. The court recorder takes down all the information or conversations exchanged so the court can review the arguments later if required.

In a civil trial, the plaintiff must convince the jury according to the evidence standards known as preponderance of the evidence.


Once all the sides present the evidence, they must give the closing arguments. During a jury trial, the judge will explain to the jury the law pertaining to the case and the decisions they need to make.

The jury is typically asked to determine whether the defendant is responsible and, if so, how much they should pay to the plaintiff. In a bench trial with no jury, the judge decides the case.

Civil Suit Vs. Criminal Suit

There are several differences between civil cases and criminal cases.

  • Anyone can bring a civil action against people, companies, and other entities, while a prosecutor can only bring a criminal case.
  • In civil cases, the burden of proof is much lower than in a criminal case, where the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • The loser of the civil case or civil lawsuit pays damages in monetary terms, while the loser of the criminal case spends time behind bars.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law Civil Action Experts

If you suffered injuries in an accident that was not your fault, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation, as you may be eligible for compensation, and our top-notch lawyers can help.

Michael Ehline is an inactive U.S. Marine and world-famous legal historian. Michael helped draft the Cruise Ship Safety Act and has won some of U.S. history’s largest motorcycle accident settlements. Together with his legal team, Michael and the Ehline Law Firm collect damages on behalf of clients.
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Michael Ehline

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