Can I Sue? Here are 5 Questions to Answer First

by Team eLocal
injury in fact and redressibility

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

Maybe your back hurts after a bad fall on a slick grocery store floor, or perhaps a coworker has been harassing you. When someone's negligence or wrongdoing causes an injury, you may be able to file a civil lawsuit.

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But just because you feel wronged doesn’t mean you have a lawsuit on your hands. You'll need to make sure your case meets these requirements pursuing the suit.

Who Can You Sue?

You can sue most adults and legal entities. Some limitations may apply if the person who caused your injury was a minor or legally incompetent. You may need to include the person's legal guardian in your lawsuit, and additional laws can apply. For example, under California law, parents are responsible for up to $25,000 of damages caused by a child's "willful misconduct."

Federal and state governments in the United States have broad immunity from lawsuits. There are circumstances under which you can sue a government entity, but there are often strict limitations on lawsuits against government bodies. Government officials as individuals are often protected by qualified immunity. Suing foreign entities is possible but can be complicated, so it's wise to speak with an attorney first.

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Who Can Sue Someone Else?

Generally, any natural person or legal entity can file a lawsuit. The following are examples of entities that can sue:

  • Individual adults
  • Corporations
  • Limited liability companies (LLCs)
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Governments
  • Groups certified by the court as a class for the purpose of a class action suit

Minors or people who are determined to be legally incompetent or incapacitated may not be able to file lawsuits. However, a parent or court-appointed guardian can sue on their behalf.

What Are the Requirements for a Valid Lawsuit?

If you can't show a valid reason for your lawsuit, the court may dismiss the case before hearing any additional evidence. A valid lawsuit requires:

  • Injury in fact
  • Causation
  • Redressability

When you meet all three requirements, you have what's known as standing to sue.

Injury in Fact

To file a lawsuit, you must have suffered an actual injury. You usually can't sue for an injury that’s theoretical or hasn't happened yet. However, you can sometimes sue if a future injury is clear and imminent.

Causation

The defendant's actions or negligence must have caused your injury. Many lawsuits involve factual disputes over who caused an injury, which must be determined at trial. For example, if several cars were involved in an accident, the drivers may dispute who caused the accident and injuries. However, at the time you file the lawsuit, you must be able to reasonably claim that the person you're suing could be responsible for your injury.

Redressability

Redressability means a favorable court ruling would do something to fix your situation. If you sue to stop your neighbor from damaging your property, a court ruling in your favor would help you by preventing the damage. If you sue a doctor for malpractice, a court ruling won't undo the injury you suffered, but it could help you recover financially for medical expenses or lost income.

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What Types of Injuries Can You Sue For?

In a lawsuit, “injury” doesn’t just mean a laceration or broken limb. Injuries can be financial, physical or emotional. Examples of injuries you can sue for include:

  • Personal injury due to a car accident, negligence or willful conduct
  • Legal malpractice
  • Medical malpractice
  • Wrongful termination
  • Workplace injuries
  • Unpaid rent
  • Breach of contract
  • Disputes over property lines or other real estate issues
  • Breach of fiduciary duty
  • Discrimination that violates state or federal laws
  • Harm due to a dangerous drug or product
  • Harassment or intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • Slander and libel

Any concrete infringement on a legally protected right could be an injury. Speaking with a lawyer can help if you aren't sure whether something qualifies as an injury.

What Types of Injuries Can't You Sue For?

You typically can't sue for hypothetical injuries. For example, you can't sue if a negligent driver almost hit you with their car but stopped at the last second. You also can't sue if no legally protected right has been violated. Your neighbor might paint their house a terrible color or install landscaping you hate, but unless they've violated city codes or a homeowner's agreement, there's probably not much you can do.

You can't sue for an injury that a court or legal agreement has already legally resolved. And while you can sometimes sue for things like emotional distress or slander, the legal standards for these lawsuits can be difficult to meet.

Finally, you can't sue if the defendant has immunity or a law prohibits lawsuits for the alleged injury. As an example, federal law limits lawsuits for alleged vaccine-related injuries.

What Other Limits or Requirements Are Placed on a Lawsuit?

Federal, state and local laws place other requirements and limitations on lawsuits, and these can vary by location. Two major requirements are jurisdiction and the statute of limitations.

Jurisdiction and Venue

Jurisdiction is a court’s legal authority to hear a case. A court must have personal jurisdiction over the defendant in the case. This usually means the defendant resides, does business or was engaged in an activity within a state. The court also needs subject matter jurisdiction over the case, which refers to whether a federal or state court should hear a particular case.

The venue is which specific court within a state or federal court system should handle a case. Venue and jurisdiction can be confusing, so you may wish to speak with a lawyer if you aren’t sure where to file your case.

Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is a law that requires litigants to file a lawsuit within a certain period of time after an injury happens. As an example, many states require personal injury claims to be filed within a year or two of a car accident. Time limits vary based on the jurisdiction and the type of lawsuit, and sometimes, claims against government entities have shorter time limits. You can’t file a lawsuit if the statute of limitations has passed.

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