How To Sue Someone: The Legal Step-by-Step Guide

Civil lawsuits arise when people, businesses, and other entities—including the government — disagree. There are generally four stages to civil lawsuits: pleadings, discovery, trial, and appeal. However, a voluntary settlement can halt this process at any time. Trials are rarely needed in most civil cases due to settlement or arbitration, an alternative to a trial. When disputes arise, people tend to decide to sue hastily. Clear communication and compromise can often achieve a resolution, whether the disputes arise from car accidents or injuries, family issues, or financial motivations. Legal action isn’t always necessary to resolve disputes.

In civil suits, financial compensation is usually the goal. However, this may or may not solve the underlying dispute. Lawsuits also come with additional costs, including filing fees, attorney fees, and the time it takes to prepare for and appear in court. 

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Common Types of Small Claims Lawsuits

Small claims lawsuit can be filed against someone who owes money in any of the following types of cases:

  • If a borrower fails to repay a loan in whole or part; 
  • If a landlord fails to return a renter’s security deposit; 
  • If someone hit and damaged a person’s vehicle, which required the person to pay for repairs;
  • If a contractor failed to finish a job or did poor work that required repairs by another contractor;
  • If someone failed to keep up their end of a contract, even if it was an oral contract.

Get in Touch With a Legal Professional Before You Sue

If you intend to sue someone, it may help to consult an experienced lawyer to determine if you have a potentially winnable case. Many attorneys offer free initial consultations and, depending on the type of case, may not charge their clients until and if they win the case. Finding an experienced attorney near you can be easier when you know what types of cases the lawyer usually takes and what type of cases you have. The following are typical lawsuits that some attorneys may specialize in:

  • Significant outstanding debt;
  • Breach of contract, such as:
    • Unpaid wages;
    • Amounts owed for goods or services purchased;
    • Unpaid loans;
    • Overdue rent or property damage;
  • Breach of warranty;
  • Failure to return a security deposit;
  • Libel or slander (defamation);
  • Nuisance;
  • Personal injury (many personal injury lawyers focus on these types of cases);
  • Product liability;
  • Professional malpractice.

How Can I Sue Someone?

The process can be complex if you have a reason to sue someone. However, it generally includes the following steps.

Name the defendant

Ensure you have the correct name and contact information for the person or business entity you’re suing. A judgment can only be collected from the defendant whose name appears in the court documents. Entering the wrong name will affect your ability to win your lawsuit.

Additionally, you might lose your ability to sue the correct person or business if the statute of limitations runs out before you can name the proper defendant.

Ask for payment

If you have a small claim, you must generally ask the other party for payment before filing with the court (unless you have a good reason not to). In your court documents, you must explain how this request was made, whether in person, by phone, or in writing.

A demand letter is a precise and clear letter that can be used to request writing payment. If you decide to file a lawsuit later, include a copy of the demand letter as evidence at your small claims hearing to show that you attempted to collect the payment before filing.

Demand letters may be enough to resolve a dispute. When a business or person owes money, a firm request outlining why they owe it may have a powerful enough effect on them to induce payment. Often, when you are having an issue with a business, a demand letter brings the problem to the owner’s attention, who may not have been informed of the complaint by a manager.

Finding the proper court to file your claim

A plaintiff filing a claim should go to the appropriate county’s small claims court. If you file your claim in the wrong court or jurisdiction, your claim may be dismissed entirely. If the statute of limitations passes while the misfiled case is pending, you cannot file your lawsuit again and will miss the opportunity to collect the money owed. 

Fill out your court forms and file your claim

A complaint explains how the defendant caused the plaintiff’s damages or injury, demonstrates the court’s jurisdiction, and asks for relief. An attorney can help prepare the complaint and file it with the court. The plaintiff (usually via a  court official or process server) must then serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint. The defendant may then respond with a satisfactory resolution or present a counterclaim.

Serve your claim

The service of court papers occurs when someone not involved in the case, such as a process server, gives a copy of the documents to the person, business, or government entity being sued. The service informs the other party of the following:

  • The complaint;
  • The date and location of the hearing; and
  • The actions the defendant can take.

Go to court

There are several steps to take before going to court for a lawsuit to ensure that you are prepared to present your best case, including the following:

  • Prepare what you will say;
  • Decide what your main points are and gather evidence; 
  • Consider what the other person might say and how you might respond;
  • Prepare your evidence for court, bringing two copies of every document that supports your story, including:
    • Contracts
    • Estimates (at least two) for repairs or replacements
    • Expenses incurred
    • Pictures of the damages
    • Diagrams that illustrate how the incident occurred, if applicable 
    • The police report, if any;
  • Fill out a Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents at Trial or Hearing and Declaration to request any documents that are in someone else’s possession;
  • Find and prepare witnesses who can support your story (e.g., eyewitnesses and expert witnesses, such as mechanics). Evidence can be more substantial if the witness is not a relative or a friend. However, if your friends and relatives are the only witnesses, they should present themselves well and testify clearly and truthfully;
  • Fill out a Small Claims Subpoena to order a witness to attend your hearing if they cannot or will not come without being ordered;
  • Use a professional interpreter if you don’t know English well. Depending on your eligibility, some courts may provide complimentary interpreters. You may have the right to delay your hearing so an interpreter can be present;
  • Disability accommodations may be available for the hearing impaired. At least one week before your hearing, ask the court’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator to request accommodation. 
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How Much Does It Cost to Sue Someone?

The cost of lawsuits varies and can be much higher if the case is complex and requires expert witnesses. However, if the other party settles, you will receive an agreed amount without going to trial. Even if the other party uses a lawsuit settlement-funding company, you can receive your compensation. Some expenses may be paid out of the settlement or judgment amount, whether a lawsuit settles or goes to trial.

What Happens After You Sue Someone?

Deciding to sue someone can be difficult enough after initially dealing with the problem that brought on the lawsuit. However, filing a lawsuit is only the beginning of a long and tedious case.

Trial stage

If the case does not settle after discovery or is not resolved by a motion for summary disposition or default judgment, it will go to trial. Lawyers spend considerable time preparing for trials. The more notable cases are brought before a jury to decide, whereas the small claims and others are brought before a judge in a bench trial. The judge, the plaintiff, and the defendant will deal with objections and motions to exclude specific evidence. Both sides may present witnesses, arguments, and evidence. There may also occasionally be post-trial motions and briefs after the trial’s conclusion. 

Appeal stage

If one side isn’t satisfied with the result at trial, there may be an option to appeal the case to a higher court. A higher court will review the decision of the trial court on appeal. In some instances, a judgment may be appealed more than once. Sometimes, a stay is needed to stop proceedings while an issue is being appealed. The appellant explains why the trial court’s decision should be reversed, relying on statutes and prior appellate court decisions for support. The rules of appellate courts differ from those of trial courts, so finding an attorney specializing in appellate litigation to handle the appeals process may be helpful.


Legal battles can be daunting and challenging to navigate. However, it’s important to stay resilient and empowered to gain a thorough comprehension of the intricate legal process when taking legal action against someone. Don’t allow apprehension or ambiguity to hinder you from advocating for what is rightfully yours.


What are the steps to sue someone?

Initiating a lawsuit against someone involves several steps. Firstly, it is essential to determine whether you have a legitimate legal claim against the party you intend to sue. This will likely require extensive research into the relevant laws and potentially consulting legal counsel for guidance. Assuming that a valid claim is established, the next step is to draft and file a complaint with the appropriate court.

After you file a complaint, you must give it to the defendant with a summons to go to court. The defendant can then respond to the complaint. If the defendant doesn’t respond, the court may favor the plaintiff. If the defendant does respond, the case may go to trial, where the court will hear evidence, determine who is at fault, and whether the plaintiff should get money.

What should I do if I can’t afford to sue someone?

If you cannot afford to sue someone, you may consider other options, including seeking legal advice or filing a complaint with a regulatory body or agency. You may also be able to find a pro bono attorney or a legal aid that can assist. If the amount of money you are seeking is relatively tiny, you may be able to pursue a judgment in small claims court for a small filing fee. Finally, some states also provide legal advice hotlines that can give guidance on how to proceed with a lawsuit.

What should I consider before suing someone?

Before suing someone, consider the costs of filing a lawsuit and attorney fees, and weigh the likelihood of success in court.

Furthermore, consider the emotional toll the case may take on both sides and the potential for a lengthy court battle. Additionally, consider the possibility of an out-of-court settlement to avoid the costs and time involved in a court battle.

Article by Inna Chumachenko

Inna Chumachenko is the Content Lead at Lawrina. She is responsible for managing all the content that can be found on the blog, guides, and other pages of the website. Inna has a degree in philology and a vast interest in law. In her role at Lawrina, Inna oversees the content team, establishes collaborations with writers, and curates content from various contributors.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the content for Lawrina, please feel free to contact Inna directly via email at [email protected] or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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