In order to sue a person, business or government agency or official in California, a person must first analyze a number of issues. In order to bring a lawsuit, a person must do the following:

  • Be a natural person and have “legal standing” and “legal capacity” to sue;
  • Decide in which county and court the lawsuit can be filed, which means deciding which court offers the appropriate venue and which court has jurisdiction;
  • Draft and file an initial civil complaint which states the essential elements of a person’s claim or dispute and the remedy sought;
  • In a legally approved manner, deliver a copy of the lawsuit to the person(s) or business(es) whom the person has named as defendant(s) in the lawsuit.

Each of the steps above are required in order for the lawsuit to proceed successfully. Failure to meet any one of the above requirements in the proper order and within the proper time limits may result in the court dismissing the suit.

If a person is suing a corporation, if the corporation’s headquarters is in California or if the corporation has conducted business in California, the same steps apply.

For example, after a person has determined that they have legal standing to sue and has filed their initial complaint in the proper court, the person should notify the business of the lawsuit against them by serving a copy of their complaint on their registered agent for service of process in California. A corporation’s registered agent may be found by conducting a registered agent search through the office of the California Secretary of State. In order to do business in a state, every business must have designated a registered agent in the state.

How Do I Determine If I Have Legal Standing?

As noted above, in order to initiate a lawsuit a person must have legal standing to sue. In short, this means that the person must have been harmed by the actions of the party whom the person names as the defendant in the lawsuit. The harm cannot be prospective or something that might happen in the future. It must be actual at the time the lawsuit is filed. The person named as the defendant in the lawsuit must have caused the harm. And lastly, the harm must be of a type that is recognized by the law and for which the law provides redress.

For example, if a person was injured in a car collision when a negligent driver ran a red light, then the person would have legal standing to bring a lawsuit against the negligent driver because they suffered an actual injury in the collision. However, if a person has not been directly involved or injured as a victim of the crash, then a person would not have standing to sue.

Additionally, a person must be either a natural, legal person or a valid legal entity in order to initiate a lawsuit. A natural person is simply a living individual human who has certain rights and responsibilities under the law.

A corporation, governmental entity, or other type of business entity may be considered a legal person in the eyes of the law as well. In essence, these entities can have standing to sue if they have suffered a legally recognized injury or harm.

Finally, a person must have legal capacity to be a party to a lawsuit. Some examples of people who are considered not to have the legal capacity to initiate a lawsuit include children under the age of 18 and persons that the court finds mentally incompetent because of illness, age, or disability. For example, a child or person with an intellectual disability may only file lawsuits through a legal guardian who is referred to as a “guardian ad litem,” i.e. guardian for the purpose of prosecuting a lawsuit.

How Do I Choose the Proper Venue for Filing My Lawsuit in California?

While jurisdiction determines in which state and court a person should file their lawsuit, “venue” is the county in which a person should file their claim. Usually, venue is in the county in which:

  • The defendant, the person or entity who is being sued, lives or does business (if a person is suing a business or organization); or
  • The dispute arose, such as, where an accident happened, or where a contract was entered into or where it was breached.

It is possible that the court in more than one county would be an appropriate venue in which to file a lawsuit. For example, If a negligent driver that rammed a person’s vehicle lives in Los Angeles County, the owner of the car lives in Orange County, and the accident happened in Riverside County, the lawsuit against the negligent driver could be filed in any of the three counties, Los Angeles, Orange or Riverside.

Of course, in California, cases involving title to real property must be filed in the county in which the property is located.

How Do I Fulfill the Jurisdiction and Amount in Controversy Requirements?

Once a person has determined which court has the venue for a particular lawsuit, they also need to decide which court has jurisdiction. It is important to note that a person cannot file a lawsuit in a court that lacks jurisdiction to hear their case. If a person files in a court that does not have jurisdiction, the court can dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Certain kinds of claims must be filed with specific courts or agencies. For example, California Superior Courts are not the courts in which to initiate a workers’ compensation claim. Instead these claims must first be filed with California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. Only after a claimant has exhausted all of the administrative remedies will a trial court have jurisdiction to hear a workers’ compensation claim.

The concept of jurisdiction involves three issues. One is jurisdiction over the person. This refers to the fact that in order to sue someone in a particular court, the court must have jurisdiction over the person or business entity named as a defendant in the lawsuit. In California, as in many other states, this is the court that has jurisdiction in the place where the person lives or where the business is engaged in commerce. In California, all of the Superior Courts in the state have jurisdiction over a person who lives anywhere in California or can be found in California, as well as businesses or organizations that do business in California. Each county has a Superior Court for the county.

The next element of jurisdiction is subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction concerns the type of case that a court has the authority to hear. Most Superior Courts in the State of California have general subject matter jurisdiction. The only cases that Superior Courts in California cannot hear are cases that must be heard in specialized courts, e.g. workers’ compensation cases and cases that involve a domain of federal law, e.g. bankruptcy or immigration law.

Again, in California, cases involving title to real property must be filed in the county in which the property is located. Also, certain cases can or should be filed in a federal court, for example, If the person filing the lawsuit, the plaintiff, and the person who is being sued, the defendant, are from different states or nations, the case can be filed in either a California Superior Court or a U.S. District Court, unless the amount in controversy is less than $75,000 and then it must be filed in a California Superior Court.

The last element of jurisdiction is the amount in controversy. A person who wants to file a lawsuit to recover $10,000 or less has the option of filing a small claims case in small claims court or a limited civil case in a superior court. A business can file cases involving amounts in controversy of $5,000 or less in small claims court.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both small claims court or a limited civil case in a superior court. The main limitation is that there are restrictions on what a person can ask a small claims judge to do. So, for example, in a dispute about whether a person owes another person money, a person can sue in small claims to recover money they paid under protest and want to recover. This means that the amount of money is not in dispute.

However, a person cannot sue to get the court to decide whether or not they owe money before they pay it. This type of lawsuit, one in which a judge determines the rights and obligations of each side, must be filed as a limited civil case in a superior court. A person would file the case as a limited civil case if the amount at issue is $25,000 or less. They would file the case as an unlimited civil case if the amount at issue is over $25,000.

There are many types of unlimited civil cases. These include the same types of cases that are brought in the limited jurisdiction court, like cases for breach of contract, personal injury, or property damage, but unlimited cases involve more than $25,000.

Unlimited civil cases also include other types of disputes that do not involve money, like cases to resolve (or “quiet”) title to real property, cases asking for civil restraining orders, and requests to change a person’s name or a child’s name.

An experienced attorney can help a person understand venue and jurisdiction and choose the right court for the lawsuit the person wants to file. An experienced civil law attorney can also help a person understand the basics of how to file a lawsuit.

How Do I File a Complaint in California?

The next step in suing a person or entity in California is to file a complaint. A complaint is a formal, legal document that sets out the factual basis for a person’s claim and requests compensation for the person’s losses or some other remedy, e.g. specific performance of a contract. In California, a complaint must include a statement that clearly sets out a person’ s cause of action, and states a demand for a remedy, sometimes called the “prayer for relief”.

California provides helpful pre-written form documents through the various jurisdictions’ websites that help a person draft a complaint for various types of lawsuits, such as personal injury or breach of contract. Once a person has drafted their complaint, they must then file it in the office of the clerk of the court, and pay the required filing fee.

How Do I Provide Legal Notice to the Defendant?

After a person has filed their complaint with the clerk of the court, they must then serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint. This must be done in one of the following ways:

  • Having a licensed process server deliver the complaint to the defendant or the defendant’s usual place of residence; or
  • Sending the notice by certified mail to a corporation’s registered agent or another person who has legal authority to receive such notices through the court.

It is important to make sure that your complaint is properly served, since a lawsuit cannot proceed until proper service of process can be proven.

Once service of process is complete, a person’s lawsuit has been legally filed and can proceed. The defendant has 30 days from the time of service to file an answer. If the defendant does not respond, a person can file a motion for a default judgment with the court. If a default judgment is granted, the person can proceed to collect the amount of damages awarded in the judgment.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with a California Lawsuit?

As can be seen, properly filing even the simplest of lawsuits can get complicated fast. Completing all of the above actions is only the beginning of a lawsuit. Prosecuting a lawsuit through to a finish involves many technicalities. Thus, it may be in your best interests to consult with an experienced and well qualified California civil law attorney who can help you with the process and make sure your claim is properly drafted, filed in the right court and served in the manner required by law..

Further, an attorney can assist you with your case, negotiate with the opposing party to obtain a fair settlement, or even represent you in a court trial if that becomes necessary. You are most likely to get the best possible outcome in your case if you have an experienced civil law attorney representing your interests.