In order to sue a person in California, you must do the following:

  1. Have “legal standing” to sue,
  2. Decide which court and county to sue in, 
  3. Draft and file a complaint stating the essential elements of your claim, and 
  4. Notify the defendants that a lawsuit is pending against them.

Each of these steps is required in order for the lawsuit to proceed. Failure to follow these steps in the proper order and within the proper time limit can result in the court immediately dismissing your case.

Additionally, a “person” can also refer to a corporation. If you wish to sue a corporation, and the corporation’s headquarters are in California, you can use the same steps described below. (This article focuses on civil lawsuits in California. Different procedures apply if you are filing a family law claim, probate issue, or seeking criminal prosecution.)

Legal Standing

Not everyone can file a lawsuit—you must have legal standing. Typically, you must have a clear connection to the case. For example, if you were injured in a car crash, you would have standing in a lawsuit against the negligent driver.  You may also have legal standing if you are a caretaker who is suing on behalf of a child or mentally disabled adult.

Where to File Your Lawsuit (Choosing a Venue)

Next, you must determine where to file your lawsuit. You typically must file your claim within the county where:

  • The dispute or injury occurred,
  • The defendant lives or does business, or
  • You live or do business.

Sometimes, there may be more than one permissible venue for your lawsuit. For example, a car accident may occur in one county, but the defendant lives in a different county. A lawyer can help you understand whether one venue offers a strategic advantage (such as a history of more sympathetic juries).

Also Check Out: How to File a Lawsuit

Jurisdiction and Amount in Controversy

Once you determine the correct geographic location for your claim, you must also meet other jurisdictional requirements. In California, there are two common types of trial courts: small claims courts and superior courts. California also has appellate courts—such as the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. However, you typically cannot initiate a lawsuit in an appellate court.

Courts are limited to hearing certain types of claims. If you file a lawsuit in a court that lacks jurisdiction, it will dismiss your claim. To have jurisdiction:

  • The defendant must live in or do business in California, and
  • The court must have the legal power to review your claim. 

Certain claims must be filed with specific courts or agencies. For example, California courts typically will not resolve a dispute between an injured worker and his or her employer. Instead, this claim must be filed with California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. Similarly, state courts cannot hear bankruptcy cases (which must be filed in federal court).

Some jurisdictional requirements focus on the amount in controversy (or how much the defendant owes you). Under California laws, the amount in controversy will help determine which court will hear your case. This includes:

  • Small claims court: less than $7,500 in dispute and no legal representation,
  • California Superior Court:
    • Limited civil cases:  less than $25,000 in dispute (but more than $7,500), and
    • Unlimited civil cases: more than $25,000 in dispute.

If you need help determining which court has jurisdiction over your case, contact a trial lawyer for an evaluation.


A complaint is a formal, legal document that sets out your dispute and requests compensation for your losses. Once you determine what type of lawsuit you are filing (and where you are filing it), you must write a complaint. In California, your complaint must include:

  • A statement clearly setting out your cause of action or claim, and
  • A demand for compensation (sometimes called a “prayer for relief.”).

You do not have to prove any of these things at this stage. Rather, you only need to allege facts that, if true, would entitle you to legal relief. 

Thankfully, California offers pre-written, checkbox forms for many types of complaints, including personal injury and contract cases. These forms, called “Judicial Council Forms,” can be found at the California Courts website. If you are uncomfortable filing in the forms—or a pre-written form is unavailable—contact a lawyer for help.

Once your complaint is written, you must file it (and any other required forms) with the clerk of the court. The address of every Superior Court in California can be found on the courts' website. You may file a complaint in person or by mail. Depending on your circumstances, you may also have to pay a filing fee. 


Once you have filed your complaint with the court, you must serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint. This usually means personally delivering the complaint to the defendant at the defendant’s usual place of residence. If you are suing a corporation, the notice can be sent to the corporation’s legal department or to a corporate officer who has the legal authority to receive such notices.

You cannot personally serve your complaint. Instead, a third party (who is over the age of 18 and does not have a personal stake in the case) must deliver your complaint. To ensure that service is properly handled, you should consider hiring a licensed process server.. It is important to make sure that the person serving the complaint is someone you trust, since improper service can delay, or even derail, a lawsuit.

Once these steps have been completed, the lawsuit has been filed. The defendant will have a set period of time to respond to your lawsuit—frequently 30 days from the time of service. If the defendant does not respond, you can file a default judgment with the court.

Can I Sue The State of California, a City In California, or a County In California?

Yes. You can sue the state government or a local government using the same procedure for persons. However, governments have an additional legal barrier that private parties do not have. Governments have a certain level of immunity to lawsuits. The immunity is designed to prevent private parties from controlling a government through the threat of a lawsuit.

In order to file a lawsuit against a California government, you must first fill out a claims form and file it with the proper government agency. The correct agency will depend on the government you are suing and the reason for your claim. If the agency rejects your claim, you may file a lawsuit.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help?

If this process seems complicated, it's because it is! While some cases can be easy to handle on your own, there are certain situations where you should contact a hire a products and services lawyer to help you with your case. A local California lawyer can help you with the process and make sure your case has the best chance of succeeding.