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What is a Civil Lawsuit?

By Misty Amber Brighton
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are two basic types of law — criminal and civil. Criminal law deals with wrongs against society as a whole, while civil law deals with wrongs against a person or his property. A civil lawsuit mainly deals with wrongdoings that are not criminal in nature. Some of the more common issues addressed include personal injury, negligence, family disputes, and small claims lawsuits.

Cases of personal injury, such as those that result from an automobile accident, may result in a civil lawsuit. Other suits may arise from allegations of negligence, if a person has a responsibility to maintain their property so that others are not hurt on it. Family law cases — such as divorces, adoptions, and child custody matters — also fall under the scope of civil law. Small claims cases, or those in which a nominal sum of money is in dispute, are also civil suits. Other areas of civil law include discrimination cases, employment law, and contract disputes.

There may be a specific court designed to hear only certain types of civil cases. One of the most common is a family court that handles only personal cases dealing with issues related to the family. Small claims courts also generally hear only those cases that fall into that category of civil lawsuit.

In the United States, proceedings in a civil case begin when a person files a complaint against another individual for a wrongdoing. The person who files this lawsuit is known as the plaintiff. He normally consults with an attorney before doing this to make sure his case is valid. Notice of the complaint is then given to the party being sued, who is commonly known as the defendant.

In a court of law, the plaintiff has the burden of proving his case against the defendant. In a civil lawsuit, the evidence must show a preponderance of the evidence. This means it is more likely than not that a wrongdoing occurred. The attorney for the plaintiff typically presents his client's case first. After doing so, the defendant's lawyer offers his client's side of the story, and presents any evidence that may contradict the plaintiff's claim.

The outcome of a civil lawsuit is normally determined by a judge. If either the defendant or the plaintiff requests one, a jury trial may be granted. In such cases, there are normally between six and 12 jurors who deliberate privately in order to reach a verdict. Typically, the decision of the jury members must be unanimous.

Those who are found guilty of wrongdoing in a civil court do not usually face imprisonment. Monetary damages are most often awarded to plaintiffs who win these cases. Other times, a judge may order action, such as the completion of a contract, rather than an actual payment.

Civil laws can provide rules for citizens to follow in order to maintain a peaceful society. They may also protect individuals who have suffered injuries because of another person's negligence. Those who can not settle disputes peacefully may find it necessary to proceed with a civil lawsuit, in order to receive restitution.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1001100 — On Mar 06, 2019

A doctor convinced my mom to go ahead and have the surgery. That doctor got in some sort of a problem and had to call a doctor who was overseeing her for years. They had told her that dealing with her on and off pain from was better then a tricky operation.

My mom was better and then went downhill. No prep was done before this operation. My mother died at the hands of the doctor who told her it was just like getting your appendix out it was not. Is this a civil case?

By anon291567 — On Sep 15, 2012

Monies owed by my ex husband since 2008 have still not dealt with in family court. I have four claims that equal $120,000. Can this be awarded to me under a civil suit?

By anon223403 — On Oct 19, 2011

What if a doctor treats a patient with intimidation and retaliates against a patient for complaining about it? The patient feels that they have been blacklisted and afraid their medical information has been exposed, and that their character was defamed. The patient is afraid to see doctors for the way they were treated.

By cafe41 — On Feb 08, 2011

Subway11- Sometimes government entities get sued in a civil court lawsuit. For example, there is a pending criminal and civil case pending in Florida regarding a Deerfield Beach student who was almost beaten to death in school.

The teen survived but does have a sufficient amount of brain damage and will never be the same.

The family not only has a criminal case pending against the boy that beat her, but they also filed a civil lawsuit against the school and the city for not adequately protecting the teen from harm.

By subway11 — On Feb 06, 2011

Mutsy -I know that police are often charged in the cases, but not always.

There was a case out of Texas in which two nurses reported the doctor that they worked with to the Medical Board because they felt that he was a danger to his patients.

Both Anne Mitchell and Vicki Gale were acquitted in their case that the doctor brought on because the jury felt that they were protecting their patients and not wrongfully defaming the doctor.

By mutsy — On Feb 04, 2011

SauteePan - I just wanted to say that sometimes a civil lawsuit attorney will file a federal civil lawsuit because filing in federal court is more lucrative.

In 1976, the passage of the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Act offered higher compensation to attorneys representing winning parties in a federal lawsuits.

The reason behind this was to encourage attorneys to take on cases involving civil rights violations and allow even the poorest plaintiffs the opportunity to find adequate counsel.

Federal lawsuits involving civil rights usually involved police brutality or violations regarding an individuals civil rights such as unlawful searches of an individual's property.

By SauteePan — On Feb 02, 2011

Civil lawsuit cases often arise after a criminal case has ended. For example, in the OJ case involving the death of his ex-wife and a friend resulted in an acquittal in the criminal case, but a guilty verdict in the civil case.

The reason involved the fact that the criminal case requires a higher degree of proof because the punishment is so severe.

There has to be guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the burden of that proof is on the prosecution.

With a civil case it is different because it is the preponderance of the evidence or more than 50% likely that the defendant is guilty.

The civil cases award monetary judgments as a result of the litigation. In fact in the OJ civil lawsuit, the jury award Ron Goldman’s father, whose son was killed by Simpson an award of over $33 million dollars.

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