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What is a Civil Action?

By Charity Delich
Updated May 16, 2024
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A civil action is a type of legal proceeding, which is not criminal in nature, brought by a person or an entity that has been harmed. It is usually filed in a judicial district court that has jurisdiction to hear the issue. In most civil actions, a party is seeking a legal or equitable remedy, although a civil action may also be brought to enforce or protect a legal right. Some of the most common kinds of civil actions include personal injury lawsuits, family law proceedings, civil rights violations, and breach of contract cases.

A civil action is typically brought for the purpose of resolving private legal issues that arise between people, businesses, or other entities. They can, however, extend to government agents in some situations. For example, this frequently occurs when a plaintiff believes that a government official or agency has violated his or her civil rights.

The term litigation refers to the process of a civil action. In general, the action begins when the plaintiff, who is the party seeking to recover damages, files a complaint against a defendant, who is simply the person being sued. Most jurisdictions require the plaintiff to give the defendant notice of the lawsuit by serving him with paperwork called a complaint and summons. The defendant must then file an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint. In his answer, the defendant can bring any counterclaims against the plaintiff if the defendant believes that he has been harmed by the plaintiff.

Prior to a trial, the parties generally engage in a process called discovery. During discovery, they exchange evidence and documents in line with the procedural requirements of the jurisdiction in which the action has been filed. Each party also forms its own theory of the case at hand, and they prepare for trial. Trial preparation may include piecing together evidence, obtaining and prepping witnesses, and drafting opening and closing statements. At trial, each party presents its side of the suit in front of a judge or jury.

At the end of the trial, the judge or jury issues a verdict, and the judge may hand down an order to the losing party. In a typical civil action, if the plaintiff wins, the defendant is required to pay monetary damages. Depending on the type of case, a court may also order an injunction, which is a requirement that a party act – or refrain from acting – in a certain way. In some civil actions, a losing party is also ordered to pay the winning party’s attorney fees and court costs.

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Discussion Comments
By SailorJerry — On Jun 25, 2012

@MrsWinslow - I've never actually seen the movie you're referring to, but it sounds like something I would like -- maybe I will look for A Civil Action on DVD.

There may be a lot of things wrong with the courts in the US -- almost everything that exists in the world could be improved -- but that a civil action for a disabled breadwinner brings a higher payout than one for a child who has been killed is *not* one of them.

You see, in your average settlement, a big chunk is going to be the economic damages. What has the accident in question *cost* the plaintiff, in dollars and cents? In the case of a breadwinner who has been disabled, that's quite a lot. The family is deprived of his income and in fact will now have to support him and pay his medical bills for possibly decades. (As for men being more than women, etc. -- well, that's a matter of social justice. White men are the highest earners in the country and so would reap the largest economic damages.)

But in the case of a child who has been killed, there might not be economic damages. The child was not an earner yet and the medical bills are not ongoing. So the settlement will still be based on the negligence of the defendant and the family's suffering, but the portion for economic damages will be lower.

By MrsWinslow — On Jun 24, 2012

Anyone else remember A Civil Action, the movie with John Travolta? I think it was based on a true story. It's about a town where lingering pollution from careless practices by a local factory resulted in the deaths of several children.

There's a great bit at the beginning of A Civil Action. Travolta, who plays a personal injury lawyer, is pushing his client, a middle-aged man now confined to a wheelchair, down a hallway toward the courtroom while giving a voiceover about the most valuable clients in personal injury law. He explains that the most valuable client is basically the one he is representing now -- a man in his prime who has been permanently disabled but not killed outright. Men are worth more than women, whites more than minorities, adults more than children, and disabilities more than death.

Which to me is unconscionable! How can anything be "worth more" -- that is, worse -- than a dead child? Something must be seriously wrong with the court system in this country.

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