Civil Actions

A civil action is a lawsuit that involves money, injury or damages, return of property, civil rights, or other non-criminal matters.

Being involved in a civil action can be stressful, regardless of which side you are on. To limit the stress, it is helpful to understand the court process and the stages of a case. We recommend that you talk with a lawyer to get legal advice about your specific situation.
 

A civil action is a lawsuit

A civil action is a lawsuit that involves money, injury or damages, return of property, civil rights, or other non-criminal matters.
 

A civil action is started by service (delivery) of a Summons and Complaint

In Minnesota, a civil action starts with service of the Summons and Complaint on a party. In legal terms, service means delivery. Depending on the situation, service can be done in person, by mail, or by publication. The court rules require that the server is someone who is not a party to the case.

Also in Minnesota, a lawsuit can be started without filing the Summons and Complaint in court, so the first sets of documents might not include a court file number. If you contact the court in the early stages of a case, they may not find a record of the case in their system. To move the lawsuit forward in court, the case must be filed in court within one year of service of the Summons and Complaint.
 

Defendant must serve a written Answer within 20 days or risk losing the case by default

Once the Summons and Complaint have been served, the defendant usually only has 20 days to respond by serving a written Answer on the plaintiff. A phone call to the plaintiff or plaintiff's attorney does not meet the requirements for an Answer under the rules. See Rule 5.02 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendant can call the plaintiff's attorney to ask for more time to serve an Answer, but the plaintiff might not agree to more time.
 

There are important deadlines in civil actions

You should carefully read all notices and documents you get in your case, and get legal advice if you are not sure what you should do in your situation. Some important deadlines include:
  • Answer is due no later than 20 days after service of the Summons and Complaint: The defendant has 20 days after service of the Summons and Complaint to respond by serving a written Answer on the plaintiff. If that deadline is missed, plaintiff may be able to get a judgment by default against the defendant.
  • File with the court within one year after service of the Summons and Complaint: Civil actions (except family cases) must be filed with the court within one year of service of the Summons and Complaint. See Rule 5.04 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure. Unless the parties sign a written agreement to extend the filing deadline, failure to file within the year will result in the case being dismissed with prejudice, which means that it can never be filed in District Court.
  • Other deadlines apply to discovery requests and pre-trial motions, and the court may issue orders with specific deadlines.

Talk with a lawyer to get advice on legal rights and defenses in a civil action

You are not required to have a lawyer, but we strongly recommend that you at least talk with a lawyer to get advice about your legal rights, options, and the decisions that would be in your best interest. A lawyer for the other party is not allowed to give you legal advice.

A corporation or LLC must be represented by an attorney in District Court, which includes having an attorney sign court papers on behalf of the client corporation or LLC. Except:For cases limited to the Hennepin or Ramsey County Housing Court, Rule 603 of the MN General Rules of Practice may allow a principal (or agent) of the corporation or LLC to sign court papers or appear in court on behalf of the business entity. You should get legal advice if you have questions about this issue in your case.
 
 

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?
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. Get more help with legal research at law libraries throughout Minnesota. Law libraries are open to the public, and hours will vary.
 
Answering a Civil ActionIMPORTANT: 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.


How to Respond to a Summons and Complaint

Common civil lawsuits involve claims that the defendant owes money for services or purchases, breached a contract or did something else to damage the party who started the lawsuit. The lawsuit may ask for a money judgment, return of property or an order requiring some action (called “specific performance”). If you were served with a Summons and Complaint, a lawsuit against you has started even if nothing has been filed with the Court.

The Summons states the amount of time the defendant has to respond. For most civil cases the defendant has 20 days to respond by serving a written Answer on the plaintiff. A phone call to the plaintiff or plaintiff's attorney does not meet the requirements for an Answer under the rules. See Rule 5.02 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendant can call the plaintiff's attorney to ask for more time to serve an Answer, but the plaintiff might not agree to more time.

This Answer Forms Packet includes a basic Answer Form and instructions with steps for completing the forms and filing them in court. The basic Answer Form is not intended to be a “do-it-yourself” form because civil cases are complicated. You are strongly encourged to first get legal advice on your case to decide what to write in your documents. Carefully read and follow the Instructions for the Answer Form.

The basic Answer Form should not be used to respond to a lawsuit in Conciliation Court, or for family, juvenile, criminal, probate or guardianship cases. Visit our MN Court Forms catalog to get answer forms for other case types, including: A corporation or LLC must be represented by an attorney in District Court. This includes having an attorney sign court papers on behalf of the client corporation or LLC. Except:For cases limited to the Hennepin or Ramsey County Housing Court, Rule 603 of the MN General Rules of Practice may allow a principal (or agent) of the corporation or LLC to sign court papers or appear in court on behalf of the business entity. You should get legal advice if you have questions about this issue in your case.
 

Follow 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 or legal terms, or you need help deciding what to write in your forms, you should talk with a lawyer or do legal research at a law library. Law libraries are open to the public, and hours will vary.
Pleadings in a Civil ActionThe first stage of a civil action is the "pleading stage." A pleading is a written document (in a certain format) that explains each person's side of the dispute. The person who starts the lawsuit is the plaintiff. The defendant is the person being sued.

IMPORTANT: In Minnesota, a civil action (lawsuit) starts when the plaintiff completes the step of having someone serve (deliver) pleadings (Summons and Complaint) on the defendant. People sometimes make a mistake in thinking that a lawsuit starts when papers are filed with the court, but in Minnesota, service of the pleadings is what starts the lawsuit. After the service, the defendant usually has a deadline of only 20 days to serve a written Answer on the plaintiff.
 
Name of pleading What does it do Who creates it
Summons Notifies the defendant that she is being sued. According to MN Rules of Civil Procedure 4.01, the summons shall:
  • State the name of the court and names of the parties,
  • Be signed by the plaintiff or her attorney,
  • Give a Minnesota address where the plaintiff or her attorney can be served,
  • State the time limit for defendant's answer, and
  • Notify the defendant that if she fails to answer, plaintiff will win, and the court will enter a judgment against defendant and in favor of plaintiff for the money or other action that plaintiff requested in the Complaint.
Plaintiff
Complaint Contains the following:
  • A short and plain statement of the claim that shows plaintiff is entitled to relief (this is where plaintiff states what happened between plaintiff and defendant and why defendant owes plaintiff money, or should be ordered to pay damages for a loss, or ordered to take other action), and
  • A demand for judgment (this is where the plaintiff includes what she wants the court to order the defendant to do, such as pay money).
See MN Rules of Civil Procedure 8.01Rule 10, and Rule 11, for more information about the content and format of a Complaint.
Plaintiff
Answer Contains the following:
  • A short and plain defense to each claim in the Complaint, if there is a defense, and
  • A response to each paragraph in the Complaint stating that the information is true, partly true, false, or that defendant does not have enough information to say if the paragraph is true or false.
See MN Rules of Civil Procedure 8.01Rule 10, and Rule 11.

The defendant's Answer may also contain "affirmative defenses," which are legal reasons why the defendant should not be held liable for the plaintiff's damages. See MN Rules of Civil Procedure 8.03 - 8.05.
Defendant
Counterclaim States defendant's claims, if any, against the plaintiff. Takes the same form as plaintiff's Complaint. Generally, the Counterclaim is combined with the Answer, and the pleading is called "Answer and Counterclaim."

If defendant's claims relate to the same set of circumstances or event that led the plaintiff to claim damages against the defendant, the claims must be set out in the Counterclaim, or defendant may be prohibited from suing for these claims later.

It is also possible to include claims against plaintiff that are unrelated to the event raised in Plaintiff's Complaint. See MN Rules of Civil Procedure 13.
Defendant
Reply to Counterclaim Sets out plaintiff's reply to defendant's Counterclaim. See "Answer" above; plaintiff's Reply follows the same format as the Answer. Plaintiff
 
Other possible pleadings include:
  • Reply to the Answer,
  • Third-Party Complaint, and
  • Answer to Third-Party Complaint.
These pleadings are used in more complex cases. The Court does NOT publish sample forms for these pleadings. You should talk with a lawyer to get legal advice or help with those documents, or you could contact your local law library to see if they have more information on these pleadings.
 
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.
 

Filing the Pleadings (documents) in Court

When you file pleadings with the court, you must pay a filing fee or get a fee waiver. You must also file a Civil Cover Sheet form #CIV117.

In general, after serving the Summons and Complaint, the plaintiff files her Summons and Complaint with the court along with an Affidavit of Service form, which shows when the defendant was served. NOTE: As of July 1, 2013, civil actions (except family cases) must be filed the court within one year after service of the Summons and Complaint on the defendant. See Rule 5.04 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure. Unless the parties sign a written agreement to extend the filing deadline, failure to file within the year may result in the case being "dismissed with prejudice," which means that it can never again be filed in District Court.

In general, the defendant must serve a written Answer to the plaintiff no later than 20 days after being served with the Summons and Complaint, or he risks having a default judgment filed against him. Under the rules, an Answer is a written legal document, not a phone call, email or other type of communication. See Rule 5.02 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure. After serving the written Answer, the defendant files his Answer in court along with an Affidavit of Service form.

If the plaintiff files all necessary papers and also claims under oath that defendant failed to meet the deadline for serving an Answer, the court may enter a default judgment against defendant. If the defendant had responded to plaintiff with a letter or other method of reply, the plaintiff might not be able to get a default judgment, and should talk to an attorney about her legal rights and options.
 

Scheduling Conference

Depending on the situation, the judge may schedule a telephone conference or hearing early in the court process to meet with the parties and set deadlines for how the case will proceed. The court will notify the parties by mail with the date and time of the Scheduling Conference. If you move or change your phone number, send a letter to Court AdministrationNOTE: It is very important to notify the court with any changes to your contact information.

Duty to Disclose Information

In general, under Rule 26 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure, parties in a civil action are required to disclose information to each other without being asked through the formal "discovery" process. This website only describes the requirements of the rule in general, so you should read the rules for more specific details, including deadlines, exceptions, and penalties for failure to comply with the rules.

Unless otherwise ordered by the court, disclosures are not filed with the court, but they must be in writing, signed by the party, and served on the other party. The courts do not publish sample disclosure or discovery forms. You should talk with a lawyer, or you may be able to find sample forms or additional information on civil procedures at a law library.

Failure to disclose:  Be aware that failure to disclose information as required in the rules can result in negative consequences. Rule 37 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure explains that if you fail to provide information or identify a witness, you may not be allowed to use that evidence in your trial or hearing. The court could also order other penalties against you.
 
Types of Disclosure Description
Initial Disclosures Within 60 days from when the defendant's Answer is due, all parties are required to give (disclose) to the other parties:

1.  The names of people who may have information that supports your claims or defenses. You must identify the name of the person and the subject matter or type of information they may have. You must also disclose their contact information (address and telephone number) if you have it.

2.  A copy of a description of all documents, electronically stored information, and tangible things that you have in your possession and want to use to support your claims or defenses.

3.  You must create a list with each category and the amount of damages you are claiming. You must make the supporting documentation available to the other parties; and

4.  You must make an insurance agreement available to the other parties if it could be used to satisfy all or part of a judgment.
Expert Disclosures If there is a witness who you have hired to provide expert testimony in the case, you must disclose this, along with a written report from the expert witness. Read Rule 26.01(b) of MN Rules of Civil Procedure for the details that must be contained in the report and the deadlines.
Pretrial Disclosures At least 30 days before the trial, all parties must disclose:

1.  Your witness list, including which witnesses will have their testimony presented by deposition; and

2.  Your exhibit list, identifying each document.
 


Discovery of Information

"Discovery" is the process each party can use to learn what evidence the other side has about the dispute. The discovery process takes time, and it can be expensive, intrusive and frustrating, especially if you do not have the help of an attorney. Discovery may not be needed in very simple cases, but both parties have a right to use discovery to get relevant information that the other party has about the facts of the case.

The basic types of discovery include depositions (oral or written testimony), written interrogatoriesproduction of documents or things, and requests for admission. See MN Rules of Civ. Pro. 26.01 for a complete list of discovery methods.

NOTE: The courts do NOT publish sample disclosure or discovery forms. You should talk with a lawyer, or you may be able to find sample forms or additional information on civil procedure at a law library.
Types of Discovery Description
Depositions Deposition Upon Oral Examination: The person being deposed is questioned under oath or affirmation (in other words, the person is testifying). An officer (person who is able to administer oaths and take testimony) records the deposition either by sound, sound-and-visual, or stenographic means. See Rule 30 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure for more information about required notices and procedures for depositions. A deposition is arranged by the parties or their lawyers, and is not done in front of a judge. In certain circumstances, the testimony given at the deposition can be used as evidence at a later court trial, but only as allowed by Rule 32 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure.

Deposition Upon Written Questions: The party taking the deposition sends written questions to the person being deposed. An officer records the person's responses to the written questions. See Rule 31 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure.

The party that deposes a witness has to pay the costs of a deposition (Example: The officer who records the deposition usually charges a fee for his service.)
Interrogatories Interrogatories are written questions about things that are relevant, or important, to the case. A party can serve another party with up to 50 interrogatories. Written answers to the questions must generally be sent back within 30 days. For more information, see Rule 26.02 and Rule 33 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure.
Request for Production of Documents or Things Any party can serve another party with a "Request for the Production of Documents or Things." In this type of discovery, the requesting party asks the other party to produce a particular document or item, and to allow the requesting party to inspect and copy, test, or sample the document, item or electronically stored information. See Rule 34 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure.
Requests for Admission A party uses this type of discovery to ask another party to admit or deny certain facts pertaining to the case. Statements that are not denied or objected to within 30 days (some exceptions apply) are considered to be admitted. See Rule 36 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure.
 
Discovery generally does not involve going to court. However, if there are problems, a party can file a Motion with the court and ask the judge to compel (order) a party to respond to a discovery request or impose consequences (fines, fees or other sanctions) if a request is unreasonable, a party is not responding appropriately or on time, or for other reasons allowed by the Rules. The Rules on preparing a Motion, serving it on the other party and filing it with the court are online at Rules 30 - 36 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure.
 
End a Civil Action Without a Trial

Settlement of a Civil Action

Most cases end in a "settlement" rather than going to trial. A settlement is an agreement between the parties to end the lawsuit. It is common for parties to talk about settling almost from the start of the lawsuit. A case can settle at any time, including before filing the pleadings with the Court.

Parties may be asked several times at different stages of the case to try to settle your dispute. The judge may require both parties to meet or attend mediation to try to reach a settlement. The judge may also schedule a "Pre-Trial Conference" to talk with the parties about the trial issues and evidence and take steps to speed up the actual trial. You should go to the Pre-Trial Conference prepared to offer a solution to settle the case, and be ready to consider settlement offers from the other side. Each time you go to court, including the final trial, you can expect the judge to ask you and the other party what you have done to try to settle the case.

A settlement allows the parties to find creative solutions that fit their needs, and also allows the parties to have a "known" result in their case. Going to trial and letting the Judge or jury decide is always a gamble. If you and the other party reach an agreement before the trial day, contact the judicial officer's clerk right away.


Motions in Civil Actions

Pre-trial Motions 
Pre-trial motions can resolve many important questions about your lawsuit. A motion is a written request served on the other party and filed with the court asking the judge to make a decision on a particular issue (e.g., what evidence can be admitted or excluded, who can testify as a witness, etc.). NOTE: The courts do NOT publish sample forms and instructions for pre-trial motions. You should talk with a lawyer, or you may be able to find sample forms at a law library.

Dispositive Motions 
Dispositive motions can end a case before trial if the judge decides in favor of the party who filed the motion. The following motions are dispositive:

Motion to Dismiss
A Defendant can serve and file a Motion to Dismiss the case when she believes that the Plaintiff's complaint is legally faulty in some way.

Motion for Summary Judgment
The purpose of a trial is to have the judge or jury decide what the facts are in a case; if the key facts are not in dispute, there is no need for a trial.

A party can serve and file a Motion for Summary Judgment if she believes that there are no important facts in dispute and that the agreed-upon facts support a judgment in her favor.

The Motion for Summary Judgment asks the judge to look at the undisputed facts and apply the law to those facts, and argues that the law requires a judgment in favor of the party who filed the Motion for Summary Judgment.

The party opposing a Motion for Summary Judgment has to show the judge that there are key facts in dispute and that a trial is necessary. Or, the party opposing the motion can agree that the facts are not disputed, but argue that the law requires a judgment in his favor.

Motion for Default Judgment
If the Defendant fails to respond to the Plaintiff's Complaint within the time limit stated in the Summons, the Defendant is in "default." See MN Rules of Civ. Pro. 55.

The Plaintiff can request a "default judgment" against the Defendant. Depending on the type of relief requested in the Complaint and other circumstances, the Defendant may or may not be notified before the default judgment is granted. See MN Rules of Civ. Pro. 55.

IMPORTANT: If you are served with Motion papers, you should get legal advice right away.


Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) processes are other ways people can resolve legal problems without going to trial. Parties are generally required to try ADR in civil cases before the case can go to trial. ADR involves an independent third person, called a "neutral," who tries to help resolve or narrow the areas of conflict. "Mediation" is one type of ADR. The parties may agree to use ADR, or the judge may require it.

For more information, see the ADR section of this website and MN Gen. Rule of Prac. 114.
 
Civil Trial Without a JuryCourt trials are a popular topic on TV shows. Most civil lawsuits, however, end before trial. Cases often end by the parties reaching an agreement through alternative dispute resolution, or by the judge's decision based on a "dispositive motion" such as summary judgment, or by the parties agreeing to dismiss the case.

During a trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence to decide whether the Defendant should be held legally responsible for claims made by the Plaintiff. A trial in which the judge makes the decision about who wins is called a "court trial" or a "bench trial." A trial in which a jury decides who wins is called a "jury trial." Civil cases are generally set up as a court trial; a party must specifically ask for a jury trial and pay an additional jury fee to the Court in advance of the trial. See MN Statute § 357.021.

Handling a civil trial involves many complicated steps, court rules and procedures, so we strongly encourage you to get help from a lawyer.

Read this booklet to learn about the trial process:
Civil Trial Booklet What to Expect as a Self-Represented Party in a Civil Trial (without a jury)
 

Stages of a Civil Trial (no jury)


Generally, in a civil trial without a jury the Plaintiff presents his/her side of the case first. When the Plaintiff "rests" (finishes presenting his/her evidence), the Defendant then has an opportunity to present his/her side of the case. The common stages of a civil trial are listed below.
 
Trial Stage Description
Opening Statements When the trial starts, the Plaintiff's attorney (or Plaintiff if he/she has no lawyer) usually is the first to give an opening statement. He/She tells the judge a summary of the facts of the case, and what he/she intends to prove during the trial.

The Defendant can give his/her opening statement right after the Plaintiff, or he/she can wait until the Plaintiff has finished presenting his/her evidence. The Defendant's opening statement tells the judge his/her version of the facts, and sets the stage for responding to Plaintiff's evidence. The Defendant will also present "affirmative defenses," if any exist, to the Plaintiff's claims.
Witness Testimony 
& 
Cross-Exam
This is the main part of a civil trial, where each party presents key evidence (sometimes called the "case-in-chief").

The Plaintiff usually presents his/her case-in-chief first; he/she may call witnesses and experts to testify, and introduce physical evidence (like photographs, documents, or medical reports).

Presenting witness testimony usually follows this pattern:
 
  • A party calls a witness to the stand, and the witness is "sworn in" (swears or affirms that he/she will tell the truth).
  • "Direct examination" of witness is when the party who called the witness to the stand asks questions of the witness as a way to present evidence that strengthens the party's position in the case.
  • After direct examination, the opposing party can question the witness through "cross-examination." Cross-examination usually must be limited to the matters covered during direct examination. The purpose of cross-examination is to clarify the answers given on direct examination, and it can also be used to challenge the credibility of the witness. If the judge allows, cross-examination may get into additional matters.
  • Next, the party who originally called the witness to the stand has another opportunity to question the witness through"re-direct examination." This is where the party attempts to fix any harm done to him/her case through cross-examination.
After the Plaintiff finishes presenting his/her case-in-chief (after he/she "rests"), the Defendant presents his/her evidence in his/her case-in-chief.

Once the Defendant has rested, the Plaintiff will have a chance to respond to the Defendant's arguments through "rebuttal,"a time when he/she can contradict the Defendant's evidence.

Throughout the trial, either party may make an objection about questions asked of witnesses, the answers given, or other evidence being offered.
Closing Arguments In their Closing arguments, the parties "sum up" their cases. Both parties try to convince the judge that the evidence supports a decision in their favor.
Legal Briefs &
Proposed Orders
The judge may require or allow the Plaintiff and Defendant to file written legal briefs arguing and applying the law to the facts of the case. The judge may also require one or both parties to file a proposed Order, which the judge may sign or amend and sign. Briefs and proposed Orders are challenging for a non-lawyer to prepare, but it may be possible to get samples and help with legal research from a law librarian.
Judge's Decision Unless the case is very simple, after receiving all of the evidence, the judge will usually take the case "under advisement" to take time to think about the evidence and law, and write a decision.

The party who loses a case might be ordered to pay money to the winning party. See MN Statute § 549.02.

If the losing party is ordered to pay money to the winning party, it is the responsibility of the winning party to collect the money. The court does NOT do the collection for the party. If the losing party does not cooperate and pay voluntarily, collecting the money can be difficult. For more information on the collection process, see the Judgment section on this website.
 
Civil Trial With a JuryMost civil trials do not involve a jury, but instead are presented to a judge, which is called a "bench trial" or "court trial." If you want a jury trial, you must request a jury and pay a jury fee to the Court in advance of the trial. See MN Statute § 357.021.

Not every civil case can have a jury trial. Rule 38.01 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure says that there is a right to a jury trial, unless waived, "in actions for the recovery of money only, or of specific real or personal property."

Presenting a civil case to a jury involves many complicated steps, including choosing the members of the jury and providing the court with proposed jury instructions at the end of the trial. If you want to have your case presented to a jury, we strongly encourage you to get help from a lawyer.

Read this booklet to learn about the trial process: Civil Trial Booklet
What to Expect as a Self-Represented Party in a Civil Trial (without a jury)


Stages of a Civil Jury Trial

Usually, the Plaintiff presents her side of a civil case first, and when the Plaintiff "rests" (finishes presenting her case), the Defendant then has an opportunity to present his side of the case. The common stages of a civil jury trial are listed below.
 
Trial Stage Description
Choosing a Jury Except in cases tried before a judge, one of the first steps in a civil trial is selection of a jury.

The judge and the parties (through their attorneys, if they have them) will question a group of potential jurors. The goal of the questions is to try to understand a juror's beliefs or experiences that might relate to the case.

The judge can excuse (dismiss) potential jurors based on their answers to the questions. The Plaintiff and Defendant can also exclude a certain number of potential jurors.

In civil actions, there are usually 6 people on a jury, up to a maximum of 12.
Opening Statements When the trial starts, the Plaintiff's attorney (or the Plaintiff if she has no lawyer) usually is the first to give an opening statement. She tells the judge or the jury a summary of the facts of the case, and what she intends to prove during the trial.

The Defendant can give her opening statement right after the Plaintiff, or she can wait until the Plaintiff has finished presenting her evidence. The Defendant's opening statement tells the jury her version of the facts, and sets the stage for responding to Plaintiff's evidence. The Defendant will also present "affirmative defenses," if any exist, to the Plaintiff's claims.
Witness Testimony &
Cross-Exam
This is the main part of a civil trial, where each party presents key evidence (sometimes called the "case-in-chief").

The Plaintiff usually presents her case-in-chief first; she may call witnesses and experts to testify, and introduce physical evidence (like photographs, documents, or medical reports).

The presentation of witness testimony usually follows this pattern:
 
  • A party calls a witness to the stand, and the witness is "sworn in" (swears or affirms that he will tell the truth).
  • "Direct examination" of a witness is when the party who called the witness to the stand asks questions of the witness as a way to present evidence that strengthens the party's position in the case.
  • After direct examination, the opposing party can question the witness through "cross-examination." Cross-examination usually must be limited to the matters covered during direct examination. The purpose of cross-examination is to clarify the answers given on direct examination, and it can also be used to challenge the credibility of the witness. If the judge allows, cross-examination may get into additional matters.
  • Next, the party who originally called the witness to the stand has another opportunity to question the witness through"re-direct examination." This is where the party tries to fix any harm done to her case through cross-examination.
After the Plaintiff finishes presenting her case-in-chief (after she "rests"), the Defendant presents her evidence in her case-in-chief.

Once the Defendant has rested, the Plaintiff will have a chance to respond to the Defendant's arguments through "rebuttal," a time when she can contradict the Defendant's evidence.

Throughout the trial, either party may object the questions asked of the witnesses, the answers given, or other evidence being offered.
Closing Arguments In their Closing arguments, the parties "sum up" their cases. Both parties try to convince the jury that the evidence supports a decision in their favor.
Legal Briefs &
Proposed Orders
The judge may require or allow the Plaintiff and Defendant to file written legal briefs arguing and applying the law to the facts of the case. The judge may also require one or both parties to file a proposed Order, which the judge may sign or amend and sign. Briefs and proposed Orders are challenging for a non-lawyer to prepare, but it may be possible to get samples and help with legal research from a law librarian.
Jury Instructions After the closing arguments, the judge will give the jury a set of legal standards, called "jury instructions," explaining the criteria needed to decide which side should "win." The judge may require the parties to submit proposed jury instructions to the court.
Jury Deliberation & 
Verdict
After receiving the judge's instructions, the group of jurors "deliberates." This means they discuss the case to see if they can agree on whether the Defendant should be held liable based on the Plaintiff's claims. If they answer "yes," they also deliberate on what compensation, if any, the Defendant should pay to Plaintiff.

If the Defendant has made any counter-claims against the Plaintiff, the jury also deliberates on whether the Plaintiff should be held liable for Defendant's counter-claims.

Once the jury reaches a decision, the jury foreperson informs the judge, and the judge calls the parties back to the courtroom where the verdict is announced in open court.
The party who loses a case might be ordered to pay money to the prevailing party (the party who wins). See MN Statute § 549.02.

If the losing party is ordered to pay money to the prevailing party, it is the responsibility of the winning party to collect the money. The court does NOT do the collection for the party. If the losing party does not cooperate and pay voluntarily, collecting the money can be difficult. For more information on the collection process, see the Judgments section on this website.
 
Commencing a lawsuit without the assistance of an attorney can be difficult. Court staff cannot take the place of an attorney or give you legal advice.  If you choose to proceed without an attorney, you must understand that you will be held to the same standards as an attorney in following procedural rules and meeting statutory requirements.  

To start a lawsuit and sue someone, you must complete, serve and file a summons and complaint. These papers are called the pleadings.  They are the first papers filed with the court to start the lawsuit.  These papers tell the Court what happened and explain what relief you are requesting the Court to give you.  You are called the plaintiff(s).  The person(s) that you are suing is called the defendant(s).

You will usually sue the defendant in the county where he/she/they reside, however, this may change depending on the circumstances of each case.  Jurisdiction can be complicated and because each case is unique, you may wish to consult an attorney.  Court personnel cannot give you legal advice as to where you must sue the defendant.

The first part of the summons and complaint called the caption must list the full name(s) of the party(ies).  Do not use initials or titles such as Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.  If you are suing a company or corporation (business entity) you must list the name correctly.  You may wish to contact the Secretary of State at (651) 296-2803 or via email at Direct.Access@State.Mn.Us to verify the type of business entity and to get the correct name.  The names of the parties are important.  If you have the wrong name you may not be able to collect your judgment even if you do win in court.  The summons must be signed.

The complaint states your claim against the opposing party and the relief you are requesting.  The complaint should answer the following questions:
  • What happened?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did it happen?
  • How were you damaged?
  • What relief do you want the court to give you?
You must state a claim upon which the Court may grant relief.  You should set this information out in numbered paragraphs in the complaint using plain language and being as specific as possible.  You must be careful to include all your information and requests for relief.  It is important that you follow all statutory requirements and procedural rules.  Once the complaint is answered by the opposing party you will not be able to make changes without special permission from the court.

You must sign the complaint and also the verification in front of a notary public or a court clerk.  By signing the verification you swear to the Court that your lawsuit is being brought in good faith and not to harass the other party.

When the complaint is completed, you must have a copy of the complaint and the summons served upon the defendant(s).  If there is more than one defendant, each defendant must be served.  An independent third party who has no interest in the proceedings, is not a party to the lawsuit and is over the age of 18 must serve the Summons and Complaint.  The papers must be handed directly to the party(ies) or maybe left with a person of suitable age and discretion who lives with the defendant, usually a spouse, parent or roommate.   This is called personal service. Depending upon the circumstances of your case, there may be other methods of service.  You may wish to consult an attorney or the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure regarding methods of service.  The person who serves the papers must fill out and file an affidavit of service with the Court.   To locate a courthouse please visit Find Courts.

After you have served a copy of the summons and complaint on the Defendant(s), you must file the original summons and complaint and the affidavit of service with the District Court.  The filing fee must be paid at the time of filing. Once your case is filed, it will be assigned to a Judge.  You will receive notices from the Assignment Division regarding scheduling deadlines, hearing dates and required documents. Meeting these requirements is your responsibility.
 

Representing yourself and not having an attorney will not be an excuse for failure to meet deadlines, file documents or appear in Court. 

If you are unable to pay the filing fee, you may apply for a waiver of the filing fee based upon your financial circumstances.  These forms are available on the Forms tab of this Help Topic.  The court administrator will review your application and forward it to a judge.  The judge will determine if you qualify.
To start a civil lawsuit in Minnesota, a person or company must have a Summons and Complaint served on (delivered to) another person or company. The party starting the lawsuit is usually called the Plaintiff, and the party being sued is called the Defendant. The Summons generally says that the Defendant must provide the Plaintfiff with a written “Answer” to the Complaint within 20 days from when the documents were served on the Defendant.

See the Forms tab in this section for an information packet and forms to answer a summons and complaint.
The Minnesota Judicial Branch does not publish statewide forms to start a civil action, but it does publish forms to respond to a civil action.

Both Dakota County District Court and Ramsey County District Court offer summons and complaint forms for use in those local district courts.  In addition, the Minnesota Rules of Civil procedure offers an Appendix of Forms that includes sample forms (including summons and complaint forms) for illustration purposes. 

You may also find sample forms at a law library. You should talk with a lawyer to get help in writing pleadings or other documents for your case.


Forms Related to Starting a Civil Action

Forms to Answer & Respond to a Civil Action

Forms Packet: Answer to a Civil Action (statewide)
This packet includes forms and instructions that can be used to write court papers that respond to a civil lawsuit started in any Minnesota county.


Other Civil Court Forms

Civil forms published by the Minnesota Judicial Branch are listed in a few different locations on their website. Please browse the pages linked below:
If you are representing yourself in a civil action in District Court in Minnesota, you are responsible for following the same laws and rules as an attorney. Read Rights and Duties of Self-Represented Parties.
 

Laws & Rules in Civil Actions

The following is a list of some of the laws and rules that relate to civil actions in District Court. You should talk to a lawyer and get advice on how the laws and rules may affect your case.

Minnesota Court Rules: You can get help with legal research at Law Libraries throughout Minnesota. County law libraries are open to the public, and hours will vary.
 
 

Resources in Civil Actions

Legal Advice: