How to Sue Someone: The Legal Step-by-Step Guide

Civil lawsuits arise when people, businesses, and other entities, including government entities, disagree. There are generally four stages to civil lawsuits: pleadings, discovery, trial, and, possibly, an appeal. However, a voluntary settlement can halt this process at any time. Trials are rarely needed in most civil cases. Arbitration is sometimes an alternative to a trial.

When disputes arise, people tend to make hasty decisions and decide to sue. Whether the dispute arises from car accidents or injuries, family issues, or financial motivations, a resolution can often be achieved through communication and compromise. Legal action isn’t always necessary to resolve disputes.

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In civil suits, financial compensation is usually the goal. This may or may not solve the underlying dispute. Lawsuits also come with additional costs, such as filing fees, attorney’s fees, and the time it takes to prepare and appear in court. 

Common Types of Small Claims Lawsuits

You can file a small claims lawsuit against someone who owes you money in the following manners:

  • You can sue someone in small claims court if they fail to repay your loan in full or in part. A landlord can be sued if they fail to return the security deposit.  
  • You can also sue someone in small claims court, if someone hit and damaged your vehicle, leading you to need to pay for repairs.
  • In small claims court, you can sue a contractor for reimbursement for a failed or unfinished job.
  • You can sue someone who failed to keep up their end of a contract, even if it was an oral contract.

Get in Touch With a Legal Professional Before You Sue

If you intend to sue someone, you should consult an experienced lawyer to determine if you have a winnable case. Many attorneys offer free initial consultations and won’t charge you until they win your case. Find an experienced attorney near you today by knowing what you should look for in the professional.

List of Things You Can Sue For

  • Significant outstanding debt
  • Breach of Contract, such as:
    • Unpaid wages
    • Amounts owed for goods or services purchased
    • Unpaid loans
    • Unpaid rent, property damage
  • Breach of Warranty
  • Failure to Return a Security Deposit
  • Libel or Slander (Defamation)
  • Nuisance
  • Personal Injury (personal injury lawyers are recommended for these cases)
  • Product Liability
  • Professional Malpractice
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How Can I Sue Someone?

Suing someone generally entails the following process:

Figure Out How to Name the Defendant

Make sure you have the correct name and contact information for the person or business you’re suing. A judgment can only be collected from the defendant whose name appears on the court forms. Entering the wrong name will prevent you from collecting your money. Additionally, you might lose your ability to sue the person or business you intended to sue because the statute of limitations might pass by the time you name the proper defendant.

Ask for Payment

If you have a small claim, in general you must ask the other side for payment before going to court (unless you have a good reason not to). It can be in person, by phone, or in writing. On your court form, you must explain how you did this.

A demand letter is a precise and clear letter that should be used to ask for payment in writing. If you decide to file a lawsuit later, you should present the demand letter to the judge at your small claims hearing to show that you tried to collect payment already.

Demand letters are often enough to resolve a dispute. When a business or person owes you money, a firm and strong request outlining the reasons they owe you money may have a powerful enough effect on them. Often, when you are having an issue with a business, a demand letter can bring it to the attention of the owner, who may not have been informed of your complaint by the manager.

Where Do I Go to Sue Someone? Finding the Right Court to File Your Claim

As the plaintiff, your claim should go to the appropriate county’s local small claims court. If you don’t file your claim in the correct court, your claim may be dismissed. If the statute of limitations then passes, you will not be able to refile your suit and you won’t be able to collect any money owed to you. 

Fill Out Your Court Forms and File Your Claim

An attorney can help the plaintiff prepare a complaint and file it with the court. The plaintiff (or another court official or process server) must then serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint. A complaint explains how the defendant caused the plaintiff’s damages or injury, demonstrates the court’s jurisdiction, and asks for relief. The defendant may then respond with a satisfactory resolution or present a counter-claim.

Serve Your Claim

The service of court papers occurs when someone not involved in the case, such as a process server, gives a copy of your papers to the person, business, or government entity that you are suing. The service informs the other party of the following:

  • The request you are making;
  • The date and location of the trial; and
  • The actions they can take.

Go to Court

  • Ensure you are prepared for your trial
  • Prepare what you will say
  • Judges will want to know why you are filing a lawsuit and what you want them to order. You should decide what your main points are and gather evidence. Consider what the other person might say and how you might respond. An attorney or small claims advisor can be vital in this process.
  • Prepare the evidence for court
  • You should make two copies of every document that supports your story. You can provide evidence through:
    • Contracts
    • Estimates (at least 2)
    • Expenses
    • Pictures
    • Diagrams that illustrate how the accident occurred 
    • The police report
  • Fill out a Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents at Trial or Hearing and Declaration to request any documents that are in someone else’s possession.
  • Witnesses can support your story (eg. eyewitnesses and/or expert witnesses, such as mechanics)
  • Bring people you know will support you. Evidence can be stronger if the witness is not a relative or a friend. However, your friends and relatives may be the only witnesses. They should represent themselves and testify in a professional manner.
  • Fill out a Small Claims Subpoena to order a witness to attend your hearing if they cannot or won’t come on their own.
  • Use an interpreter if you don’t know English well. Depending on your eligibility, some courts may provide free interpreters. Don’t ask a witness or child to interpret for you. You have the right to have your hearing delayed so an interpreter can be present.
  • Disability accommodations are available for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. At least one week before your hearing, ask the court’s ADA coordinator to request an accommodation for persons with disabilities.
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How Much Does It Cost to Sue Someone?

The average cost of suing someone is difficult to calculate, but you should expect to pay around $10,000. The cost of your lawsuit will be much higher if it is complex and requires many expert witnesses.

You should be able to take care of these expenses without any issues if you win your case.

If you do not have a strong case, you should avoid going to trial. Trials are risky since court judgments are difficult to predict in any case. In most cases, it is better to come to an agreement with the other party.

You will receive a certain amount of money without needing to go to trial if the parties reach a settlement. Even if the other party uses a lawsuit settlement-funding company, you’ll be able to get your compensation.

Just because you settled your lawsuit doesn’t mean you’re not liable for the expenses associated with it. Even though your expenses will be fewer, you still need to pay for them.

What Happens After You Sue Someone?

Trial Stage

In the event the case does not settle after discovery or is not resolved by a motion for summary disposition or default judgment, it will go to trial. Trials require lawyers to spend considerable time preparing for them. The jury decides which facts to believe in a jury trial, whereas the judge decides what to believe in a bench trial. During every trial, the judge will render a ruling on objections and motions to exclude certain evidence. Witnesses, arguments, and evidence will be presented by attorneys. Post-trial motions and briefs may occasionally be filed by the parties after the trial has concluded. Some judgments may be appealed by attorneys after a trial.

Appeal Stage

Occasionally, if one side isn’t satisfied with the trial result, they can appeal the case to a higher court. A higher court reviews the decision of a trial court in an appeal. In some instances, a case may be appealed more than once. The attorney may need to first seek leave (or permission) from the court to see if the court will take the appeal depending on the type of appeal. In some cases, a stay is needed to stop proceedings while an issue is being appealed. In a brief, the appellant explains why a trial court’s decision should be affirmed or reversed, relying on statutes and prior appellate court decisions for support. The rules of appellate courts differ from those of trial courts. Attorneys who specialize in appellate litigation typically handle appeals.


Litigation can be a grueling and stressful experience.  By understanding the process, you can take control of your situation and make the best decisions for you and your family.

Article by Mariia Synytska

Mariia Synytska is Content Lead at Lawrina, a legal portal that projects innovation in law. Mariia manages the content on the website, takes interviews with lawyers and law experts, and looks for the interesting topics for Lawrina's audience. If you would like to be a blogger for Lawrina, you can contact Mariia for all the details via email

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