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Starting a Civil Action
IMPORTANT: In Minnesota, a civil action is started when the Summons and Complaint are served on the defendant, which can happen before a case is filed with the court and given a file number. If you were served with a Summons and Complaint and don't know what you should do, talk with a lawyer immediately to get advice. Court employees can provide general information on court rules and procedures, but are not allowed to give legal advice.
Do I have a valid case?
Before starting a civil action, you must figure out if you have a legally valid claim. You must also examine how the importance and complexity of the issues compare to the amount in dispute and the costs of litigating the case in court. See Rule 1 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure on proportionality. If you file a case that is frivolous, meant to harass the other side, or it doesn't have merit, you may be ordered to pay fines as well as attorney fees and costs incurred by the other side, or have other sanctions ordered against you. See MN Rules of Civil Procedure 11.
To avoid starting a frivolous lawsuit, you should know the answers to these two questions, and if you don't, you should talk with a lawyer:
1. Is there a legal basis for my claim?
There must be a law that supports your claim against the other party (or supports your defenses to a lawsuit against you).
Example: If storm water backs up into your basement and soaks the carpet, you may wonder if you can sue the city for the cost of clean-up and carpet replacement. There may be a Minnesota law that protects cities from lawsuits for homeowner damage that was out of the city's control, or was caused by an "act of nature."
Before filing the case with the court, you or your attorney should research the law and find out if you have a legal basis to sue. If the law protects the city from liability in your situation, it might not be in your best interest to start a civil action.
2. Has the statute of limitations expired?
A statute of limitations is a law that puts a time limit on how long a person has to pursue a legal remedy (such as a civil action) after an event occurred that caused them harm or damages. After the time limit is up, unless there are exceptions allowed by law, the person who was harmed loses the right to file a civil action. Different types of claims have different statutes of limitations. If the time to sue has expired, you may no longer have a legally enforceable claim.
Talk with an attorney to see if you have a legal basis to start a civil case. An attorney might suggest other factors that would support your lawsuit that you did not consider, or she might tell you the reasons why you should not start a civil case.
Note: Court staff cannot tell you if your claim is valid or help you weigh the proportionality of the importance and complexity of the issues in your case against the amount in dispute and the costs of litigating your case in court. You should talk with an attorney to get this type of legal advice on your situation.
Are there any special procedural requirements?
In some situations, you must take specific steps to create a basis for suing. In other words, you need to do something before you sue. Depending on the situation, steps required to be completed before starting a civil case could be included in sources such as the Minnesota Statutes, rules or regulations, or in a contract.
Example: If you want to sue your landlord because your apartment needs repair, there may be a legal requirement to give notice to your landlord about the problems and allow time to make repairs before you can start a civil case. (This is just an example and may not be an accurate statement of Minnesota law for landlords and tenants.)
Example: Special procedural requirements are often involved in malpractice cases. MN Statutes § 544.42 and § 145.682 require an expert's affidavit to be served along with the pleadings, or the case could be dismissed.
Following the Law and Court Rules
Anyone who handles a case in court (attorneys and self-represented parties) are required to know and follow the court rules. Ignorance of the rules is not an excuse for failure to follow the rules. In some situations, not following the rules can result in a case being dismissed, or in fines being assessed. Lawyers regularly read and re-read the MN Court Rules. If you are representing yourself, you must also study and follow the rules. If you do not understand the rules, you should ask a lawyer for help.
Read Rights and Duties of Self-Represented Parties.
Read Laws, Rules & Resources for Civil Cases for a list of some of the rules that apply to civil actions.
Get more help with legal research at law libraries throughout Minnesota. Law libraries are open to the public, and hours will vary.
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