Civil Actions

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

Common civil actions involve claims that the defendant (party being sued) owes money for services or purchases, breached (broke) 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").
Being involved in a civil action can be stressful for both sides of the case. 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.
Here are some important details about civil actions in MN:
  • A civil action is a lawsuit.
  • A civil action 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 on a party or parties.
  • A civil lawsuit can be started without filing the summons and complaint in court, so the first set of documents (called “pleadings”) might not include a case number (also called a court file number). If you contact the court in the early stages of a civil lawsuit, they may not find a record of it in their system but that does not mean it is not a valid lawsuit.
  • The case must be filed in court within one year of service of the summons and complaint.
 There are important deadlines in civil actions. Some important deadlines include:
  • Time to respond with a written answer to the summons and complaint.
  • Time to file the case with the court.
  • Time to respond to discovery requests (such as interrogatories and requests for production of documents) and pre-trial motions.
  • Any specific deadlines the court may include in its orders.
 You should carefully read all notices and documents you get in your case. It is a good idea to get legal advice if you are not sure what you should do in your situation, what deadlines apply, or if you have questions about your 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.
Legal reasons why the defendant should not be held liable for the plaintiff’s damages.
A document that is used by the party being sued to respond to each claim in the complaint against them. The defendant's answer may also contain affirmative defenses.
The main part of a civil trial, where each party presents key evidence. The plaintiff usually presents their case-in-chief first. Each party may call witnesses and experts to testify, and introduce physical evidence (like photographs, documents, or medical reports).
A legal demand.
When each party "sums up" their cases. Both parties try to convince the judge or jury that the evidence supports a decision in their favor.
A document used by the plaintiff to make a legal claim and state the facts and reasons why they should get what they are asking for in a case.
A document that states the defendant's claims, if any, against the plaintiff. Generally, the counterclaim is combined with the answer, and the pleading is called "Answer and Counterclaim." If the defendant's claims relate to the same set of circumstances or event that led the plaintiff to claim damages against the defendant, the defendant state these claims in the counterclaim or they may not be allowed to sue for these claims later. It is also possible to include claims against plaintiff that are unrelated to the event raised in plaintiff's complaint.
When the opposing party can question a witness after 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. Cross-examination usually must be limited to the matters covered during direct examination. If the judge allows, cross-examination may get into other matters.
The party or parties being sued. A party can be an individual or a corporation.
When a person is questioned under oath or affirmation (in other words, the person is testifying). An officer (person who can administer oaths and take testimony) records the deposition either by sound, sound and visual, or stenographic means. A deposition is arranged by the parties or their lawyers outside of court. 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. The party that deposes a witness has to pay for the costs of a deposition (for example, the officer who records the deposition usually charges a fee for their service). See Rule 30 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure for more information about required notices and procedures for depositions.
When the party taking a deposition sends written questions to the person being deposed. An officer (person who can administer oaths and take testimony) records the person's responses to the written questions. See Rule 31 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure for more information.
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.
The process of exchanging information about the witnesses and evidence each party will use at trial.
Motions that can end a case before trial if the judge decides in favor of the party who filed the motion (for example, a motion for summary judgment).
The required notification to the other party(ies) when there is a witness you have hired to provide expert testimony in the case. You must also provide 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.
Certain required information that all parties must share with the other party(ies) within 60 days from when the defendant's answer is due, including:
  • The names of people who may have information that supports your claims or defenses. You must identify the name of the person and describe the information they may have. You must also provide their contact information (address and telephone number) if you have it.
  • A copy of or a description of all documents, electronically stored information, and items that you have in your possession and want to use to support your claims or defenses.
  • A list with the amount of each category of damages you are claiming. You must make the supporting documentation available to the other parties.
If there is an insurance agreement that could be used to satisfy (pay) all or part of a judgment, it must be made available to the other party(ies).
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. 
When a jury discusses the case to see if they can agree whether the defendant should be held liable (responsible) based on the plaintiff’s claims after getting specific instructions from the judge. If they answer "yes," they also deliberate on what compensation, if any, the defendant should pay to plaintiff.  If the defendant has made any counterclaims against the plaintiff, the jury also deliberates on whether the plaintiff should be held liable for defendant's counterclaims.  Once the jury reaches a decision, the jury foreperson (lead juror) informs the judge, and the judge calls the parties back to the courtroom where the verdict is announced in open court.
The instructions the judge gives to the jury after the closing arguments, which includes a set of legal standards explaining the elements needed to decide which side should "win." The judge may require the parties to submit proposed jury instructions to the court.
A written legal argument that applies the law to the facts of the case. The judge may require or allow the plaintiff and defendant to file written legal briefs.
A formal request asking the judge to make a decision on a particular issue (for example, what evidence can be used, who can testify as a witness, etc.). There are many types of motions, which must be served on the other party(ies) and filed with the court.
A motion asking for the judge to rule in one party’s favor without going through a full trial because that party believes there are no important facts in dispute and that the agreed-upon facts support a judgment in their favor. The party opposing a motion for summary judgment must show the judge that there are key facts in dispute and that a trial is necessary or can agree that the facts are not disputed but argue that the law requires a judgment in their favor. A motion for summary judgment is a dispositive motion.
A motion asking the judge to grant a judgment in the plaintiff’s favor by default because the defendant did not respond to the plaintiff's complaint within the time limit stated in the summons. 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 Rule 55 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure. A motion for default judgment is a dispositive motion.
A motion by a defendant asking the judge to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint because they believe it is legally invalid in some way (for example, the complaint did not follow procedural rules).  A motion to dismiss is a dispositive motion.
A summary of the facts of the case and what they intend to prove during the trial that is given by each of the parties (or their attorneys) at the beginning of the trial. When the trial starts, the plaintiff (or their attorney) is usually the first to give an opening statement. The defendant can give their opening statement after the plaintiff, or they can wait until the plaintiff has finished presenting their evidence. The defendant's opening statement tells the judge their version of the facts and sets the stage for responding to the plaintiff's evidence. The defendant will also present any affirmative defenses to the plaintiff's claims.
The judge’s written decision. After hearing all the evidence, the judge will usually take the case "under advisement" to take time to think about the evidence and law. After making decisions on the contested issues, the judge issues a written order.
The party who starts a lawsuit. This could be an individual, a group of people, a business, an organization, or a corporation.
A written document (in a certain format) that explains one person's side of the dispute.
A meeting with the parties and judge before the trial starts to talk about the logistics of the trial, including evidence issues, the timeline of the trial, and the possibility of settlement.
Certain required information that all parties must share  with the other party(ies) at least 30 days before the trial, which must have:
  •  their witness list, including which witnesses will have their testimony presented by deposition; and
  •  their exhibit list, identifying each document.
A document that a party wants the judge to sign. The judge may require that one or both parties file a proposed order. The judge can sign the order, make changes to the proposed order before signing it or write their own order to sign.
An additional direct examination of a party’s witness after the witness has been asked questions (cross examined) by the other party. This is where the party tries to fix any harm done to their case through cross-examination.
A document the plaintiff uses to respond to the defendant's counterclaim. The plaintiff's reply follows the same format as the answer.
A written discovery request asking another party to admit or deny certain facts about the case. Statements that are not denied or objected to within 30 days are generally considered to be admitted, although there are some exceptions. See Rule 36 of MN Rules of Civil Procedure.
A discovery request served by one party asking 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 for more information.
The delivery of copies of any papers a party is filing with the court to the other party(ies) in the case. Depending on the situation, service can be done in person, by mail, electronically, or by publication. See the Service of Process Help Topic for more information. 
A document that tells the defendant(s) they are being sued. According to MN Rules of Civil Procedure 4.01, the summons must:
  • State the name of the court and names of the parties;
  • Be signed by the plaintiff or their attorney;
  • Give a MN address where the plaintiff or their attorney can be served;
  • State the time limit for the defendant's answer; and
  • Tell the defendant that the plaintiff will win if they fail to answer, so the court will enter a default judgment against the defendant and in favor of the plaintiff for the money or other action that plaintiff requested in the complaint.
The decision of the jury.
The formal name for the process of jury selection (pronounced “vwahr deer”). Except in cases tried before a judge, one of the first steps in a civil trial is the selection of a jury.  The judge and the parties (or 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.
When a person who knows something related to the case swears to tell the truth and then explains what they know to the court. Presenting witness testimony at trial usually follows this pattern:
  • A party calls a witness to the stand, and the witness is "sworn in" (swears or affirms that they will tell the truth).
  • Direct Examination – See definition above.
  • Cross Examination – See definition above.
  • Redirect Examination – See definition above.
During the trial, either party may make an objection about questions asked of witnesses, the answers given, or other evidence being offered.
Before starting a civil action, you must figure out if you have a legally valid claim. You must also think about how the importance and complexity of the issues compare to the value of the relief you are asking for and the costs of litigating the case in court. See Rule 1 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure on proportionality. Court staff cannot tell you if you have a valid case or help you weigh the proportionality. It is a good idea to get legal advice before starting a civil action. Also, if you file a case that is frivolous, meant to harass the other side, or 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 Rule 11 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure.
Handling a civil case, either with a judge or a jury, involves many complicated steps, court rules, and procedures, so it is a good idea to get help from a lawyer.
To avoid starting a frivolous lawsuit, you should know the answers to the following 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 allows your claim against the other party.
Example: If stormwater backs up into your basement and soaks the carpet, you may wonder if you can sue the city for the cost of cleanup and carpet replacement. There may be a MN 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." In this case, your claim may not be allowed under the law.
Before filing the case with the court, you should research the law and talk with a lawyer to find out if you have a legal basis to sue. A lawyer might suggest other factors that would support your lawsuit that you did not consider, or they might tell you the reasons why you should not start a civil case.
2. Has the statute of limitations expired?  A statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum time period someone can wait before filing a lawsuit after an event happened that caused them harm or damages. After the time limit is up, the person who was harmed loses the right to file a civil action unless there are exceptions allowed by law. Different types of claims have different statutes of limitations. If the time to sue has run out, you may no longer have a legally enforceable claim.
Court staff cannot tell you what the statute of limitations is for your case. Talk with a lawyer to see if you have a legal basis to start a civil case and/or to see if your statute of limitations has expired.
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. For 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 case. Another example is that specific procedural requirements are often involved in malpractice cases. 

Depending on the situation, steps required to be completed before starting a civil case could be included in sources such as the MN Statutes, rules, or regulations, or in a contract. Talk with a lawyer if you’re not sure whether there are special requirements that may apply to your case.
To start a lawsuit and sue someone in MN, you must complete and serve a Summons and Complaint on the defendant(s). The summons and complaint are the papers (called pleadings) that start the lawsuit. These papers tell the court and the other party what happened and explain what relief you are asking the court to give you. The person that starts the lawsuit is called the plaintiff(s). The person(s) being sued is called the defendant(s). In MN, the lawsuit is started when the summons and complaint are served on the defendant(s), not when the summons and complaint are filed with the court.
You usually sue a defendant in the county where they reside or have a place of business. However, this may change depending on the circumstances of each case. Because jurisdiction can be complicated and each case is unique, it is a good idea to talk to a lawyer. Court staff cannot give you legal advice about where you must sue the defendant.
Generally, after serving the summons and complaint, the plaintiff files their summons and complaint with the court along with proof of service (called an Affidavit of Service) or a Waiver of Service form. When you file pleadings with the court, you must pay a filing fee or ask for a fee waiver. You must also file a Civil Cover Sheet.

Civil actions (except family cases) must be filed with 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 be filed again in District Court.
After your case has been filed, you will receive notices from the court telling you what judge has been assigned to your case and scheduling deadlines and hearing dates.
Civil actions (except family cases) need to be filed with 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 will result in the case being “dismissed with prejudice,” which means that it can never be filed in District Court.
Anyone who handles a case in court (attorneys and self-represented parties) is required to know and follow the court rules. Not knowing or understanding 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. If you are representing yourself, you must study and follow the rules. If you do not understand the rules, you should ask a lawyer for help. Please review the Representing Yourself in Court and Going to Court Help Topics for more information.
In MN, a civil action is started when a summons and complaint are served on the defendant (person being sued). Service typically happens before a case is filed with the court and given a court 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 staff can provide general information on court rules and procedures but are not allowed to give legal advice. Below is general information about responding to a civil lawsuit.
An answer is a formal document used to respond to a summons and complaint and is due within a specific deadline after service of the summons and complaint. IMPORTANT: 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 must serve a written answer within the correct timeframe or risk losing the case by default. If a deadline is missed, the plaintiff may be able to get a judgment by default against the defendant.
In most civil cases, the defendant has 21 days to respond by serving a written answer on the plaintiff. Exception: If the plaintiff sends a written request for a waiver of service and the defendant returns a signed waiver of service form, the defendant has 60 days (90 days if the defendant lives outside the United States) from the date the plaintiff sent the waiver request. See Rule 4.05 of the MN Rules of Civil Procedure.
The MN Judicial Branch has a packet for Responding to a Civil Lawsuit, which includes an answer form and instructions with steps for completing the forms and filing them in court. You are strongly encouraged to get legal advice before completing the forms to decide what to include in your answer. NOTE: This answer packet should not be used to respond to a lawsuit in Conciliation Court, or for family, juvenile, criminal, probate, or guardianship cases. Visit our Court Forms catalog to get answer forms for other case types, including:
A defendant who does not serve a written answer on the plaintiff risks having a default judgment entered against them. 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.  
If you did not serve a written answer within the correct timeline, you may still wish to try serving and filing a late answer. It will be up to the judge in your case to decide whether to consider an answer that was served after the deadline. If you are not sure whether to try this, it is a good idea to talk to a lawyer.
A corporation or Limited Liability Company (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.
EXCEPTION: For cases limited to 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.
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. This is called a Scheduling Conference. 
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. The different types of disclosures are explained in the Definitions tab (initial disclosures, pretrial disclosures, and expert disclosures). Be aware that this website only describes the requirements of the rule in general. You should read the rules and talk with a lawyer 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 for help with drafting these forms, or you may be able to find sample forms at a law library.

Failure to disclose: Be aware that failure to disclose information as required in the rules can have a negative impact on your case. 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.
Discovery is the process each party can use to learn what evidence the other party(ies) has about the case. 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 items, and requests for admission. These types of discovery are defined in the Definitions tab. See MN Rules of Civ. Pro. 26.01 for a complete list of discovery methods.
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. They can also ask the court to impose penalties (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.

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 at a law library.
Most cases end in a settlement rather than going to trial. A settlement is an agreement between the parties to resolve 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 any pleadings have been filed with the court.
Parties may be asked several times at different stages of the case to try to settle their dispute. The judge may require the parties to meet, go to mediation, or go to another form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to try to reach a settlement. ADR processes are other ways people can try to work out legal problems without going to trial. Parties are usually 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.
The judge may also schedule a Pretrial 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 Pretrial Conference prepared to offer a solution to settle the case and be ready to consider settlement offers from the other party(ies). Each time you appear for a hearing, including the final trial, you can expect the judge to ask you and the other party(ies) what you have done to try to settle the case.
For more information, review the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Settle Out of Court Help Topics as well as MN General Rule of Practice 114.
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 day of the trial, contact the court right away.
During a trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence to decide if 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 if they want one and pay a jury fee to the Court before the trial. See Minn. Stat. § 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 picking the members of the jury and giving the court proposed jury instructions at the end of the trial. If you want to have your case presented to a jury, it is a good idea to get help from a lawyer.

To learn more about the civil trial process, please review the Civil Trial Booklet: What to Expect as a Self-Represented Party in a Civil Trial (without a jury).
Generally, in a civil trial without a jury the plaintiff presents their side of the case first. When the plaintiff "rests" (finishes presenting their evidence), the defendant then has the chance to present their side of the case. The common stages of a civil trial are explained in the Definitions tab.
To learn more about the civil trial process, please review the Civil Trial Booklet: What to Expect as a Self-Represented Party in a Civil Trial (without a jury).

Forms to Start a Civil Action

Forms Packet: Starting a Civil Case in District Court (statewide)
This packet includes forms and instructions for starting a civil lawsuit in any MN county.

Forms to Answer and Respond to a Civil Action

Forms Packet: Responding to a Civil Lawsuit (statewide)
This packet includes forms and instructions for responding to a civil lawsuit started in any MN county.
Other Civil Court Forms
Other civil forms published by the MN Judicial Branch are listed in a few different locations on the website:

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

If you are representing yourself in a civil action in District Court in MN, 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 MN. County law libraries are open to the public, and hours will vary.

Resources in Civil Actions

Legal Advice:
  • People with a low income (under 300% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines) who are involved in civil actions may qualify for free legal advice by phone from the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN). Attorneys provide 20-30 minutes of legal advice by phone during a scheduled appointment time. For details, please call the VLN Client Intake line at (612) 752-6677 from 9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday.
  • Find a Lawyer
  • Legal Advice Clinics