How is a lawsuit started?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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While each jurisdiction and each court has its own specific rules that must be followed, exactly, in most states a lawsuit is started by filing a document named a complaint in the court clerk’s office.

The court or an attorney then issues a summons that is served on the defendant – sometimes by personally delivering it to him or her, other times by delivering it to an appropriate adult at the person’s home or place of business, and sometimes by sending it by registered or certified mail. (In some states, such as New York, a lawsuit is begun by serving the summons on the defendant and later filing the “Summons and Complaint” in court.) If the defendant cannot be found it may have to be published in a newspaper or two.

The exact procedure is typically found in the state’s code or rules of civil procedure, plus each court’s rules. The formalities must be strictly adhered to or the lawsuit can or will be dismissed. For example, the rules may specify the paper size, the type size and style, the color of the paper, the margins and spacing of words on the paper, and the quality of the paper! (For example, California now requires recycled paper with printed margins and numbered lines; some states require a specified type style – one state demands Courier and papers typed on Times Roman are rejected.)

Even in filing the Complaint, there may be strict rules, such as prior presentation of a demand letter, and exhaustion of all potential administrative or contractual remedies. An attorney will assist you in adhering to the proper procedure.

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