Types Of Cases
Learn about civil cases – the standard of proof the court uses, common types of civil cases filed, and the stages of a civil case.
Criminal cases involve enforcing public codes of behavior, which are codified in the laws of the state. In criminal cases, the government prosecutes individuals for violating those laws (in other words, for allegedly committing a crime). Punishment in criminal cases can include fines, community service, probation, prison, and the like.
CAUTION! The Civil Law Self-Help Center does not provide information or forms for criminal cases. You should not use the information on this website if you are involved in a criminal matter. To learn more about criminal matters, visit your local law library. Click to visit our LAW LIBRARY page to learn more.
Civil cases involve conflicts between people or institutions such as businesses, typically over money. A civil case usually begins when one person or business (the "plaintiff") claims to have been harmed by the actions of another person or business (the "defendant") and asks the court for relief by filing a "complaint" and starting a court case. The plaintiff may ask the court to award "damages" (money to compensate the plaintiff for any harm suffered), or may ask for an "injunction" to prevent the defendant from doing something or to require the defendant to do something, or may seek a "declaratory judgment" in which the court determines the parties' rights under a contract or statute.
Eventually, to resolve the case, the court (by way of a judge or jury) will determine the facts of the case (in other words, figure out what really happened) and will apply the appropriate law to those facts. Based on this application of the law to the facts, the court or jury will decide what legal consequences ultimately flow from the parties' actions.
A case also might be resolved by the parties themselves. At any time during the course of a case, the parties can agree to resolve their disputes and reach a compromise to avoid the expense of trial or the risk of losing at trial. Settlement often involves the payment of money and can even be structured to result in an enforceable judgment.
Standard Of Proof In A Civil Case
In most civil cases, the judge or jury has to make a decision about which side wins based on a standard called "preponderance of the evidence." This means that the winner's side of the story is more probably true than not true. It does not mean that one side brought in more evidence than the other side. It means that one side's evidence was more convincing than the other's.
In some cases, the standard for reaching a decision is "clear and convincing evidence." This means that the winner needs to prove that his version of the facts is highly likely. It is an intermediate degree of proof, more than "preponderance of the evidence" but less than the certainty required to prove an issue "beyond a reasonable doubt" (the standard in criminal cases).
Types Of Cases In Civil Court
Civil courts handle a wide variety of cases involving numerous legal issues. Very broadly, civil cases may involve such things as, for example,
- Tort claims. A "tort" is a wrongful act (sometimes called a "tortious" act), other than a breach of contract, that results in injury to someone's person, property, reputation, or the like, for which the injured person is entitled to compensation. Cases involving claims for such things as personal injury, battery, negligence, defamation, medical malpractice, fraud, and many others, are all examples.
- Breach of contract claims. A breach of contract case typically results from a person's failure to perform some term of a contract, whether the contract is written or oral, without some legitimate legal excuse. Cases involving claims for such things as not completing a job, not paying in full or on time, failing to deliver goods sold or promised, and many others, are all examples.
- Equitable claims. An "equitable claim" asks the court to order a party to take some action or stop some action. It may or may not be joined with a claim for monetary damages. Cases where a party is seeking a temporary restraining order or injunction to stop something (perhaps the destruction of property, the improper transfer of land, the solicitation of a business' customers) are examples.
- Landlord/tenant issues. Civil courts handle disputes arising between landlords and tenants. Cases where a landlord is trying to evict a tenant from a rental property or a tenant has moved out and is suing a landlord for the return of a security deposit are examples.
Stages Of A Civil Case
Most civil lawsuits can be divided into the stages listed below:
- Pre-filing. During the pre-filing stage, the dispute arises and the parties make demands, try to negotiate a resolution, and prepare for the possibility of a court action.
- Initial pleading. During this stage, one party files papers (called a "complaint") to start the court action, and the other party files some type of response (an "answer" or maybe a "motion").
- Discovery. During the discovery stage, both sides exchange information and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the other side's case.
- Post discovery/pre-trial. In this stage, the parties start preparing for trial; they get their evidence and witnesses in order, they might engage in some type of settlement conference, and they may file motions with the court to resolve the case or limit the issues for trial.
- Trial. During this stage, the case is actually heard by the judge or a jury (which could last for a couple of hours or a couple of months, depending on the complexity of the case); witnesses are examined, evidence is presented, and the case is eventually decided and a judgment entered.
- Post-trial. During the post-trial stage, one or both of the parties might appeal the judgment that was entered at trial, or the winning party might try to collect the judgment that was entered.
But not every civil case follows these stages. Some cases (summary eviction cases, for example) have unique procedures that are set out in the court's rules or in the governing statutes. To learn about the stages involved in a particular type of case, you can visit your local law library. Click to visit our Law Library page to learn more.