Note: You can find definitions for words followed by * in the Glossary
In the U.S., if you have a dispute with another person, you may be able to go to court to have the dispute settled. A civil action* is a lawsuit in which you charge another person with having wronged you in some way, such as hurting you physically, breaking a business agreement, or destroying your property. The process is called litigation*. Your immigration status should not be an issue in any civil litigation. All people have a right to use the court system.
Civil actions are entirely separate from criminal proceedings. They also have different results. For example, if someone assaulted* you, the State might decide to prosecute that person criminally. If the person is found guilty*, the State may put the person in jail or prison. However, you may also bring a civil action against that person. If the person is found guilty, the judge may order the person to pay you damages*, which means a sum of money.
Generally speaking, you do not have a right to a lawyer for civil actions. You can handle the lawsuit pro se*, which means by yourself, or you can hire a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may still be able to have one. Usually, a lawyer will evaluate your case for free. Sometimes, if a lawyer believes she can win the case, she will take it under a contingency fee agreement*. In a contingency fee agreement, the lawyer assumes all the costs of taking the case in exchange for a percentage of the damages, if any are recovered. If you win the case, you get the money the judge awards you, less the lawyer's fees and costs. If you lose, you pay the lawyer nothing.
In civil matters, the person who has the complaint is called the plaintiff*. The party who is accused of doing wrong is the defendant*. The plaintiff must prove his case by a "preponderance of the evidence"*. This standard is lower than the criminal standard, which is "beyond a reasonable doubt"*. If the case is proved, the defendant will be held responsible, or liable*. The judge or jury has several options, such as awarding damages or ordering the defendant to make some other form of restitution. These are called remedies*.
There are many grounds for civil actions. Two common ones are discussed here. Talk to a lawyer if you feel you have grounds for a lawsuit on any matter.
Torts are private wrongs. When a person has a duty* or obligation to others under the law, and that duty isn't met, a tort has occurred. For example, landlords have a duty to make apartments safe. If a landlord breaches* that duty in some way (such as failing to install smoke alarms) and you are injured as a result, the landlord has committed a tort. If the landlord is found guilty of committing a tort in a court of law, he may have to pay you money.
There are many types of torts. Three of the most common are intentional torts*, negligence* and strict liability*. An intentional tort occurs when a person deliberately injures another person or his property. For example, an assault is an intentional tort. Negligence, in contrast, occurs when a person fails to do something a reasonable person would do. For example, in the example used above, the landlord was negligent in failing to install the smoke alarms. Finally, a strict liability tort occurs when an injury results from one of three situations: the defendant owns an animal he knows is dangerous, he engages is an abnormally dangerous activity, or he manufactures and sells a defective product. For example, if you buy a power drill that does not hold the drill bit properly, and you suffer an injury when the bit flies out of the drill, the manufacturer may be held strictly liable.
Contracts are agreements between people that create obligations. They can be either verbal or written. There are many types of contracts, including:
- employment contracts: See Getting A Job, Workers' Rights and Starting a Business;
- leases: See Housing,
- automobile purchase contracts: See Automobiles, and
- credit card contracts: See Money Matters.
Someone who violates a contract is said to be in breach* of contract.
For example, if you purchase an automobile and fail to make the payments on it, you are in breach of contract. Likewise, if you rent an apartment on the condition that the landlord replace the stove, and the landlord does not, the landlord is in breach of contract.
Both verbal and written contracts can be enforced in a court of law. However, it is easier to prove a case if the contract is in writing. If a contract is in writing, you should read the contract and make sure you understand the terms before you sign it. If you are writing a contract, you should make sure the terms are clear and detailed. If the contract is complex or outside of your general experience, you should consult with a lawyer before writing or signing a contract.