Filing a Civil Lawsuit in California: Step-by-Step Guide

A civil case occurs when a person or entity, such as a government organization or a business, takes legal action against another party, usually seeking monetary compensation. There are various reasons for filing a civil lawsuit, including injury to an individual, damage to property, a contract dispute, or a work-related issue. However, when pursuing this lawsuit, there are various steps that need to be followed to ensure the process is done properly.

To better help you understand this process, the guide below provides a basic overview of these steps and reviews how an experienced civil litigation attorney can help you through this challenging ordeal.  

The Steps in a Civil Lawsuit

Pursuing a civil lawsuit comes with strict deadlines and procedures. While the steps below indicate a typical process for suing in California, not everyone will need to take every step. 

Small Claims vs. Large Claims

Civil cases are usually divided into two categories depending on how much money they involve. More importantly, depending on the category, the procedures may be different. For instance, if the total damages you pursue are less than $10,000, filing the case in small claims may be a better option, as the process is usually less expensive, faster, and less complex. However, for a more considerable dispute, pursuing your case in small claims court may not be possible. 

The Complaint Is Filed

To initiate a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff will submit a complaint. This document outlines all the allegations against the other party and will include specific laws that were violated, facts supporting the complaint, and a request for monetary damages or changes in the defendant’s behavior.

The Complaint Is Served

The defendant must obtain a copy of the complaint within 60 days of filing. If they cannot be found, the court may order the publication of the complaint. 

The Defendant Will File the Response

The defendant will need to submit a response to the complaint, either denying or addressing the allegations. They may also request the court to dismiss the allegations.

The Discovery Process

The discovery process involves investigating the facts of the underlying case. Both parties can request details and information from the other side. If a party does not provide the requested details, a motion may be filed asking the court to compel the other side to release the information. 

Filing a Motion for Summary Judgment

Either party can file a motion for summary judgment, which requests the judge to determine whether a party is entitled to win the case at this point because of a matter of law. 


Most cases are typically resolved through negotiations before proceeding to trial. During this stage, the parties will discuss the issues at hand and try to come to an agreement together.

Heading To Trial

If the parties cannot reach an agreement or settlement, the case may proceed to trial. The defendant will also decide whether a jury of their peers or a judge will determine the case. During the trial, each side will present its evidence before a judgment is made. 

Filing an Appeal

Either side can decide to appeal the decision. The appellate court will review the process and procedures to determine if the proceedings were proper and fair. If the case is appealed, the appellate court can uphold the decision or reverse it and return it to the lower court. 

Working with an experienced civil litigation attorney throughout this process can help ensure that your case is handled correctly, that deadlines are met, and that you are properly prepared to make critical decisions.

Learn More About Filing a Civil Lawsuit in California 

If you are interested in learning more about filing a civil lawsuit in California or want to know how to initiate the process, contact Herrera Clifton Hess today to review your case and discuss your options.