Filing the Paperwork - Complaint or Petition

Usually the first form you file will be called a Petition or a Complaint. It is usually easy to read, but almost always contains some potential pitfalls that, if not completed properly, can cause your case to be rejected by the Clerk of the Court. You must follow all of the directions and you usually must complete all of the blanks. You cannot rely on the court to provide any information. For example, they will not know your address or zip code, and they will not usually look it up. Also, they will not look up the address of a defendant. Nor will they assume anything.

If you do not complete the form properly and do the "leg work" yourself, you may end up taking a day off of work and go to court at the time you thought your case was ready, only to find that you did not provide the proper information and you have to take another day off later.

Typically, a Petition or Complaint will set forth general statements about what the Plaintiff, the person filing the Petition, claims was done wrong to him/her. In a civil litigation case, the Plaintiff states some of the problems that he/she had with the Defendant, or the work they did or did not do, the services they rendered or did not render or the nature of any other problem that the Defendant caused the Plaintiff to suffer. It is important to understand at this phase that the statements used will be very general in most cases, and will give a maximum amount of leeway to the Plaintiff to make changes in his/her statements of the wrongdoing by Defendants. This is because often, the Plaintiff knows something happened and knows the Defendants did something to the Plaintiff, but they may not know how. Often you will see an attorney working on your behalf leave out what seem to you to be important facts. The reason is because he/she may not want the Defendants to know some facts for later surprises, or your attorney may not want to be boxed in by any claim that turns out to be incorrect in a technical way.

An example can help to illustrate this fact. Assume that the Defendant caused an accident which injured you, the Plaintiff. You file your Complaint and allege that you were driving and the Defendant hit your car and then another car because they were speeding. In fact, it may later turn out at trial that the Defendant was not really speeding, but was reaching under the seat to pick up a cigarette that he dropped. If you made your statements too specific and failed to say that the defendant was not keeping a sharp lookout, a judge might drop your lawsuit, even if you were hurt in the accident! The reason is not because the judge is mean or prejudiced, but the judge is required to follow the rule of law in most states that a Plaintiff must state the reasons for his/her lawsuit and then prove them.

Technical Requirements. If you are suing a defendant and that defendant is a person, you must sue him or her in their full name, or any name by which you know them. The court must be able to identify the defendant, and you must be able to show the court the defendant is the proper party.

If you have an attorney, your attorney will perform the following research and tasks as part of his/her representation. If you are representing yourself, you must do the following tasks. If the defendant is a business, you may have to research the business to find out their full name, the officers, the type of business and their offices and addresses. If the business is a sole proprietorship, you should sue the business and the owner [2 defendants]. If it is a partnership, you should sue the partnership and all of the partners [or at least several main partners]. If it is a corporation, you must sue the corporation and you might want to sue the person(s) with whom you dealt. [For certain legal reasons, which take a lengthy explanation, the court may not allow you to sue a person individually, if they work for a corporation.]

When in doubt the rule is that you must sue all the people who caused you this problem. In a neighbor dispute, you must sue the landowner, and any tenants, if the neighbor is renting. In a car accident for minor damages to property, you must sue driver of car and car owner, and all cars who are involved who may have caused the problem as to your car.

Points to Remember

  • Get the right forms from the Court. Be sure to get extra forms in case you make a mistake or there is more than one defendant.
  • Costs: Some fees are required to file a suit. Be prepared to pay them when you file.
  • Follow all of the directions and complete all of the blanks on the forms.
  • Give the court the full name of each defendant, complete address, and phone number.
  • When in doubt, sue all of the people who caused you the problem.
  • Court clerks will usually not be able to help you with your questions regarding completing your paperwork.