What Is a Civil Lawsuit?

While criminal lawsuits involve a representative of the state initiating a lawsuit alleging criminal acts, civil lawsuits in Chicago are typically private cases that allow for disputes between individuals or entities. There are different types of civil lawsuits that people or organizations may file if they believe the defendant owed them a legal duty that they failed to provide.

Understanding Civil Litigation

Civil litigation involves one party filing a lawsuit against another to settle a dispute between the two. The goal of filing a civil lawsuit is often to seek financial compensation for damages sustained because of the defendant’s wrongdoing, often either because of the defendant’s negligence or malicious intent. However, the goal could also be to get the offending party to either perform or stop certain actions.

Depending on the nature of the case, the plaintiff who sustained damages may seek compensation, including economic, non-economic, or punitive damages. Economic damages cover direct financial losses suffered because of the defendant’s actions, including everything from medical bills to property damage and lost income. Non-economic damages include personal pain, suffering, and other experiences. Sometimes plaintiffs may also be able to recover punitive damages if the courts award them, but these are rare and aim to punish defendants for unusually negligent or malicious behavior.

If compensation doesn’t play into a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff may request the defendant to either take a particular action or cease an action they’re already taking.

What Is the Civil Case Process?

There are multiple stages in the civil lawsuit process that apply to most of these types of cases. These steps will include:


Before becoming a lawsuit, a civil case may resolve during initial negotiations. Both parties would present their arguments in this stage and make demands, followed by attempting to negotiate a settlement before the case goes to trial.


If the case doesn’t settle during negotiations, the trial process may begin, officially initiating a civil lawsuit. This particular stage would involve one party making a formal written complaint against the other party, which would begin the litigation process. The other party would then need to respond to this complaint for the case to proceed further.


Once the lawsuit process officially starts, the next step will involve discovery. This process entails both parties exchanging all the information they have regarding the case. Both parties can then determine if any of this information can help defend their position during the trial phase.


The plaintiff and defendant will begin preparations ahead of the trial process. With all pertinent information available, both parties can begin collecting and organizing evidence, hiring and working with expert witnesses and others who might help their case, and potentially try to reach a settlement one last time before the trial begins.


If the lawsuit still winds up going to court, a judge or jury will hear the case. Both sides will present opening arguments, present their cases and evidence, ask questions of witnesses and experts, and leave closing arguments. The judge or jury will then make a decision in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant.

Depending on the complexity of the case, you can expect proceedings to last anywhere from hours to years. If you work with an experienced trial attorney in your civil case, like a Chicago personal injury lawyer, you may benefit from a shorter trial if possible, as your attorney works to make the case go as efficiently and smoothly as possible.


After the trial process ends, the winning party may begin collecting the judgment, but either party may also opt to appeal the court’s decision. Typically, this post-trial appeal would go to a higher court that would review the details of the case to determine if any errors resulted in an incorrect judgment.

What’s the Difference Between a Civil and a Criminal Case?

The main difference between civil and criminal cases is the type of punishment that plaintiffs may seek against defendants.

In a criminal case, plaintiffs will seek criminal punishment for criminal acts. These punishments could include fines, probation, jail or prison sentences, and community service. In the process, plaintiffs will seek the removal of privileges and rights from defendants to punish them for their acts.

Meanwhile, civil cases seek a different type of resolution, usually in the form of a financial settlement. Plaintiffs in these cases will file a lawsuit to recover compensation that will likely prevent the defendants from committing similar acts, even if they aren’t criminal in nature. For example, a car accident victim may sue another driver whose negligence was responsible for the accident, with the intention of recovering financial compensation for injuries and other damages resulting from the accident.

Another key difference to consider between these types of cases is the difficulty of succeeding. Plaintiffs in criminal cases will need to prove that the defendant was criminally responsible “beyond a reasonable doubt,” demanding ample evidence to show how the defendant is guilty of a criminal charge. Conversely, you would need to prove that the defendant was likely responsible for a negligent or malicious act in a civil case, which is comparatively easier to demonstrate in court. However, a civil case can also be difficult to prove, especially if a “preponderance of evidence” isn’t available to help establish liability.

When It’s Possible to File a Civil and Criminal Case

Some cases aren’t exclusively civil or criminal cases. Instead, they might involve both types of litigation, depending on the circumstances of the inciting incident.

For example, someone might commit homicide, resulting in a criminal case to achieve a conviction and a civil case seeking wrongful death damages for financial compensation. In such an instance, it helps to know what to expect from the defense in a DUI personal injury claim. Another case may involve a domestic abuse victim suing his or her spouse for assault or battery in a civil case, which may follow a criminal conviction for the offense.

Types of Civil Cases

You may file different types of civil cases based on the nature of your inciting incident, such as:

  • Tort claims — Many civil cases involve tort claims, with a “tort” referring to a wrongful act or breach of duty that results in injury to someone, whether through physical injury, libel, or another type of harm. A tort is what constitutes a personal injury claim, for instance, when someone suffers injuries because of another party’s negligence or another form of misconduct.
  • Equitable claims — In cases involving equitable claims, plaintiffs may request that the defending party either take or cease a specific action. In addition, plaintiffs may seek financial compensation for any damages sustained because of the defendant’s action or inaction. Plaintiffs may also seek restraining orders in cases such as those involving harassment.
  • Breach of contract claims — When two people or organizations form a contract, one may sue the other in a civil lawsuit for violating the terms of the contract. Whether written or oral, the contract may be legally bound, leading one party to sue the other for failing to adhere to the contract without a reasonable explanation. For instance, contractors may fail to complete work that they agreed to complete in a contract, leading the individual or entity hiring the contractor to sue them.
  • Landlord and tenant disputes — Landlords and tenants may have issues and disputes that lead to civil lawsuits. An example of this would be a landlord refusing to provide proper maintenance for an apartment unit or complex, even if he or she is aware of deteriorating conditions. Tenants might decide to sue the landlord for negligence in this case, especially if the property damage led to injuries or unhealthy living conditions. Landlords may also file suits in these cases, such as when they attempt to evict a tenant who refuses to leave the property.

Determining Whether You Have a Civil Case in Chicago

Ultimately, a civil lawsuit is a case that involves one party suing another to recover financial compensation or get the other party to stop or take a particular action. If you believe you have a civil lawsuit that may help you reach a favorable settlement against a defendant, you may be able to build a case with the help of an attorney.Speaking with an experienced lawyer may help you find out whether you have a viable claim or lawsuit against liable parties in a tort claim, breach of contract claim, equitable claim, or a claim between landlords and tenants. Consulting with a lawyer can help educate you more on this matter, such as how a personal injury lawsuit works along with other types of civil cases.

Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
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