Filing the Complaint
Civil cases do not involve an allegation by the government that an individual or entity violated the criminal laws of the United States. Civil cases begin when a plaintiff - the party seeking relief - files a complaint. The act of informing individuals or businesses about a complaint filed against them is called service of process. Generally, a lawsuit must be filed in the jurisdiction where the defendant resides or where the claim arose.
The complaint states the claim that the plaintiff is making - why he, she, or it is entitled to relief. And it states the kind of relief sought. There are three principal forms of relief:
- Declaratory judgment: a decision of the court that determines the rights of parties without ordering anything be done or awarding monetary damages.
- Injunction: a court order requiring the defendant to do a specific act or prohibiting a defendant from doing a specific act. If a true emergency exists, a temporary restraining order (TRO) can be issued without even providing notice of the lawsuit to the defendant; a TRO can last no more than 10 days. A preliminary injunction is similar to a TRO, except that the defendant must receive notice of the lawsuit before the preliminary injunction is issued. The preliminary injunction (sometimes informally referred to as a temporary injunction) stays in effect until a hearing can be held, or sometimes until after a trial. If the plaintiff is successful at trial, a permanent injunction would be issued.
- Monetary relief: money damages meant to make the plaintiff "whole" for the wrongdoing of the defendant. The two most common types of monetary relief are compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the injured party for his or her loss. Special damages are a subset of compensatory damages; they represent the direct costs of the wrongdoing, such as hospital bills or wages lost while being treated. General damages are also a result of the wrongdoing, but are subjective in amount, such as awards for the plaintiff's pain and suffering or a payment for his or her mental anguish. Some contracts anticipate a breach of the agreement and stipulate how much will be awarded in the event a party reneges on the deal; these are called liquidated damages. There are also cases where a wrong was committed by the defendant, but the plaintiff suffered almost no harm; nominal damages, such as an award of $1, are made in such cases. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defendant and are a warning to others who would consider undertaking similar conduct. Treble damages are a variation of punitive damages - triple the amount of the plaintiff's actual losses.