In order to sue a person or business in California, you must first figure out whether you have the right to file a lawsuit against them. In order to bring a lawsuit against a person or business, you must do the following:

  1. Be a natural person and have “legal standing” and “legal capacity” to sue the person or business;
  2. Decide which court and county is appropriate to bring you lawsuit in;
  3. Draft and file an initial complaint, also known as a lawsuit, which states the essential elements of your claim or dispute; and
  4. Legally notify the person(s) or business(es) that a lawsuit has been filed against them.

Each of the steps above are required in order for your lawsuit to proceed. Failure to not meet one of the above requirements in the proper order and within the proper time limit may result in the court immediately dismissing your case.

Furthermore if you are suing a corporation, so long as the corporation’s headquarters are in California or they have availed themselves to the laws of California in another way, the same steps apply as if you are suing a person.

For example, after you have determined you have legal standing and filed your initial lawsuit in the proper court and county, you should notify the business of the lawsuit against them by serving the petition on their registered agent. A corporation’s registered agent may be found by conducting a registered agent search through the secretary of state’s office.

Different legal procedures apply if you are filing a family law claim, if you have probate issue, or if you are seeking criminal prosecution.

How Do I Determine If I Have Legal Standing?

As noted above, not everyone can initiate a lawsuit. In fact, in order to initiate a lawsuit you must have legal standing. In short, you need to figure out if you have the right to file a lawsuit against the person or business. This is done by first determining if you have been directly affected by the legal dispute you are bringing against them.

For example, if you were injured in a car collision where a negligent person ran a red light, you would have legal standing to bring a lawsuit against them because you actually suffered an injury in the collision. You may also have legal standing, even if you are not the person that was directly injured, if you are a caretaker who is suing on behalf of a child or mentally disabled adult.

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

In contrast, a corporation, government, or business may be considered a single legal person in the eyes of the law. In essence, the law considers a corporation to be a legal person that has certain rights and privileges, and although they are not human they are still permitted to assert legal claims, and can be subjected to legal duties.

Finally, you must have legal capacity to be a party to a lawsuit. Some persons that are considered to not have legal capacity to initiate a lawsuit include children under the age of 18 and persons that the court finds mentally incompetent because of an illness, age, or disability. For example, a child or person with an intellectual disability may only file lawsuits through a legal representative, such as their parent or legal guardian.

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

The next step in filing your lawsuit is determining where you should bring your suit. Typically in California, you must file your claim within the county where:

  • The majority of the facts or witnesses to the dispute or injury occurred;
  • The Defendant lives or has their principal place of business; or
  • Where you live or conduct business.

Sometimes, there may be more than one permissible venue in which you can bring you lawsuit. For instance, in a personal injury case you may be injured within one county, but the defendant may live in a different county.

An experienced attorney can help you understand counties of proper venue and whether one venue may offer a strategic advantage to your case. An attorney can also help you understand the basics of how to file a lawsuit.

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

Once you’ve determined the correct venue to bring your lawsuit in, you also need to meet jurisdictional requirements. In California, there are two types of trial courts: small claims courts and superior courts. California also has appellate courts, such as the Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court.

It is important to note that you cannot file a lawsuit in a court that lacks the jurisdiction to hear your case, or they will immediately dismiss you case for jurisdictional issues. In order for a court to have jurisdiction the defendant must live in or do business in California, and the court must have the legal power to review your legal claim.

In essence, certain claims must be filed with specific courts or agencies. For instance, California courts typically will not initially resolve disputes between an injured worker and their employer. Instead these claims must first be filed with California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. However, after exhausting all of your administrative remedies a trial court may have jurisdiction to hear employment dispute cases.

Additionally, some jurisdictional requirements focus on the amount in controversy, that is the amount that you are disputing the defendant owes you. Under the laws in California, the amount in controversy may often help determine which court will hear your case. This includes:

  • Small Claims Courts: Small claim courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that they can only hear cases where the amount in dispute is less than $10,000;
  • California Superior Courts: Superior Courts have limited jurisdiction to hear cases where the amount in controversy is less than $25,000; however, they have exclusive jurisdiction in most cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $25,000; and
  • Specific Courts: Courts such as a bankruptcy court have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction, meaning a person can only file a bankruptcy action in federal bankruptcy court.

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 your legal dispute and requests compensation for your losses. In California, your complaint must include a statement that clearly sets out your cause of action, and a demand for compensation (sometimes called a “prayer for relief”).

California provides helpful pre-written form documents through the various jurisdictions’ websites that will help you draft a complaint for various types of lawsuits, such as personal injury or contract matters. Once you have drafted your complaint, you must then file it with the clerk of the court, as well as pay any required filing fees.

How Do I Provide Legal Notice to the Defendant?

After you have filed your complaint with the court, you must then serve the defendant with a legal notice such as a copy of your complaint by using one of the following methods:

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

It is important to make sure that your complaint is properly served, since improper service can delay or even completely dismiss a lawsuit.

Once you have completed all of the above steps, your lawsuit has been legally filed. The defendant will then have a set period of time to respond to your lawsuit — typically 30 days from the time of service. If the defendant does not respond, you can file a default judgment with the court and proceed to collect damages.

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

As can be seen, properly filing a lawsuit, even the simplest of lawsuits, can be a very complicated process to handle on your own. Thus, it may be in your best interests to consult with an experienced and well qualified California attorney who can help you with the process and make sure you claim is properly filed.

Further, an attorney can assist you with you case, negotiate with the opposing party to obtain a fair settlement, or even represent you in a court of law if necessary.