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Starting a Lawsuit

If you need to consult with an attorney or would like more information on starting a lawsuit, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.

Most people never have occasion to file a lawsuit. You may, however, encounter a situation in which you feel it is necessary to file suit to protect your legal rights. This could occur for a number of reasons. Perhaps you have suffered an injury in an accident. You may have a disagreement over a contract you have signed or you may be dissatisfied with a house, a car or something else you have purchased. These are only examples; there are many other situations that may cause you to consider starting a lawsuit.

Many factors must be considered before a decision is made to file a suit. The importance of the matter involved must be compared with the time, effort and expense required to assert your claim. You must also evaluate the probable chances of succeeding or of failing to achieve the goals you set out to accomplish when you file your lawsuit. In any given case the determination as to whether to file a lawsuit depends upon a careful examination of the facts of your case. It is best to discuss all of these factors with your attorney before you make the decision to commence a lawsuit.

A lawsuit is commenced by filing the appropriate document at the courthouse where you wish to commence your suit. Usually, this document is a Complaint. In smaller cases and many landlord/tenant matters the Complaint may be filed at the office of the local Magisterial District Judge (formerly called District Justices). Complaints filed with the Magisterial District Judge are comparatively simple documents and the employees at the Magisterial District office are prepared to assist in the preparation of the Complaint.

In more serious matters the Complaint must be filed in the office of the Prothonotary at the County Courthouse or at the Office of the Clerk in the Federal Courthouse. Complaints filed at the County Courthouse or the Federal Courthouse are more complicated documents than those filed with a Magisterial District Judge. It is necessary to set forth a full and complete explanation of the reason why you are commencing a lawsuit. There are various rules that govern the drafting of a Complaint to be filed in County or Federal Court. A Complaint filed in County or Federal Court must be carefully drafted to comply with these rules. Again, you should consult with your attorney about the preparation of a Complaint.

Occasionally, there may not be time to draft a Complaint before suit is commenced. In this situation, it is sometimes possible to begin your lawsuit by filing a request with the court that the court issue a Writ of Summons to be served upon the defendant to inform the defendant that you have commenced a lawsuit. The Complaint can then be filed later.

It is not sufficient to merely file the appropriate document with the court. Steps must be taken to serve a copy of the document upon the party you have sued, called the defendant. Usually, this is done by the Sheriff, but may in appropriate circumstances be done by other individuals or by certified or regular mail.

There are fees for filing a Complaint and for having the Complaint served upon the defendant. You may find out what those fees are in any given case by calling the Clerk or Prothonotary of the Court in which you intend to start your lawsuit.
It is important to remember that there are time limitations with respect to the assertion of your claims in a lawsuit. Statutes of Limitation set forth the period of time available for you to start your lawsuit. If you do not start your lawsuit within that time period, your right to assert your claims will probably be lost forever. In addition, there are times it is necessary to inform someone of your intention to sue. For example, if you wish to sue a government unit you must provide it with notice of your intention to sue within a specified time period. Again, the failure to comply with this time requirement may bar your right to assert your claim.

Starting a lawsuit is only the first step. Once the lawsuit is started there are numerous procedural rules governing the progress of a lawsuit. These rules explain which pleadings must be filed, the discovery or investigation permitted, and the manner of securing a trial or hearing in your case. Your attorney is trained to comply with these rules to ensure that your legal rights are properly protected.  2/18