What Does a Civil Complaint Consist Of?

This article was written by Brian Vukadinovich, an experienced pro se litigant and the author of Motion for Justice: I Rest My Case.

Civil complaints are documents that initiate court lawsuits where one private person or entity claims to have been harmed by another private person or entity. The plaintiff files the complaint and sets forth a claim of damages that were allegedly caused by the defendant. Civil complaints also describe the relief sought by the plaintiff and explain why that person or entity is entitled to it. 

The goal of most civil complaints is to obtain monetary compensation for the plaintiff, an injunction to prevent further harm, or a declaratory judgement stating the rights of the involved parties.

What Types of Cases Can Be Initiated with a Civil Complaint?

Examples of the types of lawsuits you can initiate with a civil complaint include: 

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  • Personal injury claims, including car accidents and medical malpractice cases
  • Divorce and family law disputes
  • Contract disputes, including consumer debt cases
  • Property and housing disputes
Who Can File a Civil Complaint?

A civil complaint can be filed by any private party who is recognized as an actual legal entity, such as a natural person, corporation, business partnership, nonprofit organization, or group of citizens. In certain cases, the government can be treated as a private party when it’s involved in a civil lawsuit. 

You must have legal capacity to file a complaint, which means you must be over the age of 18 and free from mental impairments caused by age, illness, or disability. The party you’re suing is also required to have legal capacity.

What Does a Civil Complaint Consist Of?

The purpose of a complaint is to concisely and persuasively outline the facts supporting your legal claims and your request for relief. While the length and complexity of complaints can vary widely depending on the details of the case, most of them contain the following sections:

  • A caption that names the plaintiff, the defendant, the court in which the complaint is being filed, a docket or file number, and the title of the document
  • A statement demonstrating that the court has jurisdiction to hear your case and you’ve filed your complaint in the proper venue
  • A concise statement of the factual elements supporting your complaint, including how the defendant caused (or continues to cause) you harm and why you are entitled to relief
  • A specific request for relief, such as monetary damages or injunctive action
Tips for Preparing a Civil Complaint
Look at examples

Search your local court’s online records and other internet sources for civil complaints similar to your case. You may also find sample complaint forms on a variety of case topics at your local law library. Use these examples for reference as you begin crafting your complaint.

Follow Federal, state, and local court rules

Find out your court’s rules for drafting and filing a civil complaint. Each court has different requirements and your complaint could be rejected if you fail to follow them.

Research relevant law to support your claim

Research relevant federal and state law on your subject matter to ensure you provide the specific elements necessary to support your complaint. For example, if you’re accusing someone of negligence, you may need to show that the defendant:

  • Owed you a duty of care
  • Breached that duty
  • Directly caused you harm as a result of that breach

On the other hand, if you’re accusing someone of breach of contract, you might need to establish that: 

  • There was a contract (or implied contract) between you and the defendant
  • The defendant breached that contract
  • You were directly harmed as a result of that breach

In cases where you’re making multiple legal claims, draft the elements for each count under separate subheadings. For example, if you’re accusing your landlord of both negligence and breach of contract, break down the elements of those claims in two different paragraphs.

Make a specific request for relief

Research the damages you’re entitled to under the law and specifically ask for them. The type of relief you request will be dependent on the harm you’ve suffered and the damages allowed by relevant statutes. 

For instance, if you were injured in a car accident caused by the defendant, you may request monetary compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, and damage to your vehicle. However, if the defendant stole your business logo and caused you to lose income, you might ask the court for an injunction ordering the defendant to stop using your logo, as well as monetary compensation for your loss of revenue.

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