In the United States, there are two basic types of law: civil and criminal law. Criminal law has been popularized on television shows and in films, but because anyone can sue for virtually anything, you have greater statistical odds of being involved in a civil case. Understanding civil law starts with understanding civil claims.
A civil claim is a formal complaint made against one or more parties in a non-criminal -- that is, non-penal -- court. It is a suit recognizing a dispute between private individuals or corporations. People file civil claims to assert particular rights or receive compensation.
There are two primary types of civil claims. The first is a case in equity, also known as a case in chancery. These claims don't involve money, instead focusing on things like custody or wills, as explained by the City of Roanoke, Virginia website. The second type of civil claim is a case or suit in law, better known as a lawsuit. In a suit in law, the plantiff seeks financial compensation for damages or losses.
Certain restrictions apply to filing a civil claim. You might not have a case if you agreed to the contact that resulted in the damages or losses -- this is known as volenti non fit injuria. You also may not have a case if you knew the risks involved in something and proceeded despite the risks. Lastly, civil claims may not be valid in instances of contributory negligence -- that is, if you were partially or totally at fault.
Civil claims begin when someone files a formal complaint with the court clerk against you, usually for a fee. Most of the time, before this, parties involved already have tried and failed to settle the problem out of court. The court then issues a formal summons to let you know the complaint has been filed. The summons requests that you appear in court for an initial hearing. The plantiff or his attorney gives you a copy of the summons, a process known as "serving." The plaintiff generally has to submit evidence you were served properly. You then have a chance to respond to the summons. If you do not appear at the hearing, in many instances, the judge will assume you are not contesting the plantiff's claim and therefore will rule automatically in the plantiff's favor. For this reason, it is imperative to attend your hearing if you want to defend yourself against a civil claim. If you lose your case, you may have to follow a court order that puts some control over your behavior, or you might have to pay money, depending on whether the claim is equity or law. You always have the right to appeal if you lose, and you can file a counterclaim regardless of the case outcome. If you win, you maintain your rights and assets.