What are a “summons” and “complaint”?

A summons and complaint, together, formally begin a civil lawsuit. In the complaint, the plaintiff lists the basic facts of her case and names the defendant or defendants she believes should be held liable for her injuries.

A copy of the complaint is filed with the trial court. In addition, a copy of the complaint is sent to each defendant, along with a summons. The summons notifies the defendant that he is being sued and in which court the suit has been filed. The complaint gives the defendant a basic idea what he is being sued for and by whom.

A basic tort complaint generally includes the following information:

  • the caption, which includes the name of the court, the names of the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s), and the title of the action;
  • a statement indicating that this court has jurisdiction. If jurisdiction is based on geography, the complaint will likely explain that the plaintiff(s) and/or defendant(s) live – or, if one is a corporation, that it is incorporated – within the court’s geographic reach.  Some courts also require a statement of venue;
  • several short statements that lay out the cause of action;
  • a prayer for relief.

The complaint must allege all of the things that the plaintiff has the burden of proof to demonstrate are true in court.

Modern court rules have made complaints easier to write than they once were. In previous centuries, a complaint had to contain precise and technical wording. The smallest mistake might allow a court throw out the case, no matter how strong a case it was.

Today, however, courts will generally accept any complaint that states any possible cause of action, or legal reason the plaintiff should receive damages, no matter how oddly written. In other words, trial courts will generally accept any complaint that expresses a problem that that court has the power to solve.

In a personal injury case based on negligence, for instance, the complaint should contain a one- or two-sentence summary of what happened that covers each of the following points:

  • that each defendant had a duty of care to the plaintiff;
  • that each defendant breached that duty in some way;
  • that the breach caused an injury to the plaintiff; and
  • that the plaintiff should receive damages as compensation for the injury.

Damages in a complaint are usually asked for in the prayer for relief. Often, damages in a personal injury case are not listed as a dollar amount, except when a jurisdictional rule only allows the court to take a case when the damages are above a certain amount.  Then, the complaint will usually explain that the damages in this particular case are greater than or equal to the amount required by the jurisdictional rule. Complaints typically avoid listing a specific dollar amount in order to avoid locking the plaintiff into only receiving that amount, even if the evidence reveals the plaintiff is entitled to much more compensation.

In addition to asking for money damages, a complaint’s prayer for relief may ask for an injunction to stop the defendant(s) from doing something that is or will cause further injury. The prayer for relief might also ask for the court to order the defendant(s) to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees and costs if the plaintiff wins. Forgetting to ask for a particular kind of relief in the complaint will not prevent the plaintiff from receiving that relief, however, as long as the court finds she is legally entitled to it.

Some civil complaints must, by law, include more detail than others. For instance, the Supreme Court has held that complaints in antitrust cases, securities litigation, and fraud cases must contain more detail than an ordinary tort complaint.

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