The 5 steps you need to take to get your lawsuit started
Every day in the United States someone threatens someone else with a lawsuit.
But what does it take to actually file a lawsuit?
In this article, we’ll take a look at the 5 steps you need to take to file a personal injury lawsuit in Tennessee.
Step 1: Establish legal standing
Though it sometimes seems like anybody can file a lawsuit about anything these days, this isn’t true. Article III of the United States Constitution requires that you have “legal standing” to bring a lawsuit.
To establish legal standing, you must prove that:
- You have the legal capacity to file a lawsuit. Children under age 18 and mentally-incompetent adults don’t have the legal capacity to file a lawsuit. However, someone with legal capacity can generally file a lawsuit on behalf of someone without legal capacity.
- You suffered actual harm. You can’t file a lawsuit simply because you’re upset about something. To file a lawsuit, you must have personally suffered actual physical, emotional or financial harm.
- The injury can be reasonably traced to the defendant. You don’t need to prove that the defendant caused your injury yet in order to file a lawsuit, but you do need to show that there’s a reasonable likelihood the defendant caused your injury.
- The court can provide relief. To file a lawsuit, your injury must be redressable. In other words, the court must be able to provide you with a remedy that addresses your problem.
It’s a good idea to ask yourself whether you have legal standing to file a lawsuit, but don’t worry if you’re not sure. Your lawyer has an ethical duty to verify that you have standing before filing a lawsuit.
Step 2: Decide whether to hire a lawyer
If you suffered a minor injury or harm, you may not need an attorney. The Constitution affords competent plaintiffs the right to represent themselves. Judges and lawyers refer to plaintiffs who represent themselves as “pro se” plaintiffs.
If you decide to hire an attorney, finding the right one can be overwhelming. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), there are 18,818 licensed attorneys in Tennessee.
Nevertheless, choosing the right attorney is one of the most important things you can do for your case. It’s important to hire an attorney who has the qualifications and experience to handle your particular legal issue, but it’s also important to hire an attorney who you get along with.
A personal injury attorney is similar to a spouse. During the course of your relationship, you’ll probably have to discuss uncomfortable and deeply private topics (such as personal health matters). What’s more, there will be times when you’ll need to work together and other times where you’ll need to give each other space. Just like a healthy marriage, a good attorney-client relationship requires mutual trust, respect, and communication.
So how do you find the right partner for your legal journey?
Fortunately, most attorneys offer free initial consultations. Initial consultations are a great way for prospective clients to “interview” several attorneys in order to find the right one for their case.
Not sure what questions to ask during an initial consultation?
We can help:
Step 3: Figure out where to file your lawsuit
Tennessee’s trial courts are courts of “general jurisdiction,” which means they can hear any civil (or criminal) case. The vast majority of personal injury cases are heard in trial courts.
In Tennessee, there are 2 kinds of trial courts:
- Circuit courts. Tennessee is broken up into 31 judicial districts. Every judicial district has 1 circuit court.
- Chancery courts. Just like circuit courts, every judicial district has 1 chancery court.
There is very little difference between circuit courts and chancery courts in Tennessee. Generally speaking, you can file your personal injury lawsuit in either court, though your attorney might have a strategic reason for choosing one over the other.
What about small claims courts?
In Tennessee, small claims courts are called “general sessions courts.” General sessions courts handle lawsuits involving disputes of $25,000 or less.
General sessions courts are more informal than circuit and chancery courts, though you must still follow certain local rules. Due to the informalities, cases heard in general sessions courts are generally resolved more quickly than cases heard in circuit and chancery courts. You’re allowed to be represented by an attorney in a general sessions court, but it’s not required and it’s common for people to represent themselves.
Once you’ve determined the proper court for your case (circuit, chancery, or general sessions), you need to determine the proper venue.
The term “venue” refers to the geographic location where you can file your lawsuit. In most personal injury lawsuits, you can file your lawsuit:
- In the county where the defendant lives or does business, or
- In the county where the accident occurred.
If you file your lawsuit in the wrong venue, the defendant can file a motion to have the case dismissed. If the case is dismissed, you’ll have to refile your lawsuit in the proper venue (and pay the associated fees).
Step 4: File and serve your complaint
A civil action officially begins when you:
- File a summons and complaint with the appropriate court and pay the associated filing fee, and
- Serve the defendant with a copy of the summons and complaint.
|What’s the difference between a summons and a complaint?
|A summons is a written notice informing the defendant and the court that the complaint has been served and specifying the date by which the defendant needs to appear in court.
A summons must comply with the Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure § 4.02.
|A complaint sets forth the specific facts of your case, the legal reason the defendant is liable, and the redress you’re seeking from the court (i.e., what you want the court to do).
A complaint must comply with the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure §§ 8.01—8.06.
Keep in mind that Tennessee law requires cases to be filed within a certain time period. This time period is called the “statute of limitations.” In most personal injury cases, the lawsuit must be filed and served within 2 years of the date of the accident.
Step 5: Practice patience
Once you file and serve your lawsuit, the defendant has a certain amount of time to respond to the allegations. This response to the allegations is called an “answer” and usually must be filed with the court within 30 days of the defendant receiving the summons and complaint.
During this 30-day period, your attorney might be working on any number of things, including pre-trial motions and discovery requests. Keep in mind that any time your attorney files a document with the court or makes a request, the defendant has a certain amount of time to answer. The legal process can be excruciatingly slow, but it’s designed to give both parties an opportunity to make their case.
Wait... what about work-related injuries?
The Tennessee workers’ compensation system provides benefits to workers for work-related injuries.
In most situations, your only remedy for a work-related injury is to file a workers’ compensation claim. This is a completely different process than filing a personal injury lawsuit.
Ready to file your lawsuit? Use our free lawyer directory to find an experienced Tennessee attorney near you.