The California court system has a lot of moving parts, but it’s designed to provide a fair and navigable method for state residents to obtain the relief they need after an injury.
California has 58 counties and each has its own trial court, which is where the majority of legal cases begin.
Trial courts are available to hear:
The trial court system (also called Superior Courts) employs 1,743 judges. An average of 5 million cases are filed each year in the Superior Courts.
While it’s interesting to read the statistics on how many cases work their way through the court system, you care about only one case... yours.
So let’s talk about what to expect if you’re in the process of filing a lawsuit, focusing on civil claims.
Every claim begins in the trial (Superior) court. When a case makes it to court, it will be decided by a judge or jury.
Most cases begin and end in the trial courts. Cases result in a verdict in favor of either the plaintiff or defendant, and in many situations that’s the natural conclusion to the legal process.
Occasionally, a party to the case will determine that the trial court judge or jury made the wrong decision. A smaller case can be reviewed by the trial court’s appellate division, which could result in a different verdict.
For a more complicated case, a new lawsuit will be filed in the California Courts of Appeal.
When you appeal a decision, you’re essentially filing the lawsuit in reverse. If the trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant would then file a lawsuit against the plaintiff in the appeals court. A case can be appealed by either the plaintiff or the defendant.
You can’t escalate a case from the lower courts to appeals courts simply because you don’t like the verdict. There has to be a mistake of law that might’ve affected the outcome.
Before a case is tried in appellate court, the court will review the trial court record to determine if a legal mistake was made.
A case can go to an appellate court for:
An appeal isn’t the same thing as a new trial. An appeals court won’t hear any new evidence. The case will be decided based on exactly the same evidence as was presented in the lower court.
It’s not easy to win a case on appeal.
Instead of making a case against the other party, you’re actually trying to win a case against the court system.
Your lawyer now needs to prove that the court made a legal mistake during the adjudication of your case. That’s a high standard to meet, and frivolous lawsuits (those that are without legal merit) aren’t viewed favorably.
A case that has already been decided by the appeals court can escalate to the California Supreme Court if there are still disputed issues.
State and federal courts are completely separate.
The main difference between the two is the types of cases they hear:
|Federal courts||State courts|
|Federal (U.S.) laws||Torts (personal injury)|
|Cases that involve ambassadors or federal public ministers||Family law|
|Disputes between state governments||Criminal cases|
|Admiralty law||Probate (wills and estates)|
|Bankruptcy||Issues of state law or state constitution|
There are 3 levels of federal courts:
The district courts are the federal equivalent of the trial court, or the first level of litigation. There are 4 districts in California (Central, Eastern, Northern, Southern), and they feed into the 12 regions of federal districts for appeals.
California is part of the Ninth Circuit for the U.S. Courts of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit also includes:
The appeals process in the federal courts is similar to how it works in the state court system. If a party to a lawsuit has reason to believe that there was an error of law or other significant legal mistakes in the district court, they can file an appeal in the Ninth District Court of Appeals. The circuit court is usually the last stop for federal lawsuits.
The U.S. Supreme Court, with its Chief Justice and 8 associate justices, only handles cases about constitutionality or U.S. federal law.
All this information is interesting background about the legal system, but chances are that the personal injury lawsuit you file in California won’t involve all of these levels of courts and rules because only a small percentage of trial court cases go to appeal.
In order to file a personal injury claim, you must meet certain requirements:
Legal standing is the right to file a lawsuit. You can only file a lawsuit if you were actually injured by the defendant’s action or inaction.
You also must have “legal capacity,” meaning you are:
If the injured person doesn’t have legal capacity, a representative can file a lawsuit on their behalf.
A lawsuit must be filed in a county that has a link to the action that’s the cause of the lawsuit. It can be:
There might be more than 1 venue that would be appropriate for your case, and your lawyer can advise as to which would be best.
California’s court system is complicated, and there are a lot of rules and exceptions beneath the surface. It’s a lot to unpack.
But you don’t have to do it alone.
Unless your lawsuit is eligible for small claims court (the demand is less than $10,000), a personal injury lawyer will be your best guide through the legal process.
Use the following free resources to find a California personal injury lawyer who is experienced at handling the court system, negotiating with other lawyers and judges, and bringing cases to the desired outcome: