How Much Does It Cost to File A Civil Suit and When Should You?

Dayton Uttinger  | 

Civil lawsuits are when a plaintiff claims that another party has failed to live up to a legal duty or obligation, and that it has caused the plaintiff significant distress or harm. They can be your only solution when you’ve been wronged outside the scope of the criminal justice system. If prosecutors or police won’t or can’t get involved, civil lawsuits might be your only recourse.

Moving forward with a civil suit warrants careful consideration. Not only can they be very expensive, but filing a civil suit rashly generally won’t end well. You need to make sure that you have good cause to move forward, and that a lawyer will even take your case in the first place.

Civil Lawsuit Costs: How Costs are Determined

One thing to understand about filing a civil lawsuit is that it very well may end up costing you money, or at least significantly reduce the amount that you win. While most people understand that you will have to pay the attorney for his or her time, there are several other costs to take into account. These include filing fees, witness payments, and document preparation. The legal system has hole to jump through, and most of those steps require some sort of fee. There is no simple answer for how much a civil suit will cost you, because it will depend on your attorney and where you are.

Attorney Fees for a Civil Lawsuit

However, the biggest cost of a lawsuit is usually attorney’s fees. Under the American rule, each side is responsible for paying for their own attorney. There are some exceptions, but generally it depends on the state you live in. Some of the most common exceptions are in anti discrimination lawsuits, or in cases where both parties signed a contract stating that attorney’s fees would be paid by one party. Additionally, some states have laws in place that will require a plaintiff to pay for the defendants’ attorney’s fees if the lawsuit has no basis and is a waste of the court’s time.

So again, be careful when filing a lawsuit, because attorneys are not cheap.

Percentage of Amount Recovered

One of the most common ways that lawyers charge is by a percentage of the amount won, typically called a contingency fee. This is typically around 30-40 percent. You may be able to negotiate this fee with your lawyer, but be prepared for an uphill battle.

Many people view this arrangement as worth it, because it gives your attorney extra incentive to win your case. However, be sure to read the fine print of your contract. You may be required to pay court fees as they come up or to reimburse your attorney at the conclusion of your case, regardless of whether you win or not. Be sure to clarify with your attorney what you will and will not be responsible to pay in the event that you lose.

Retainer Arrangements and Hourly Fees

Alternatively, your attorney might prefer a retainer arrangement. This can mean two vastly different things, depending on how it’s worded. A “retainer fee” is like a downpayment; your lawyer wants to see that you have the funds to pay him or her before they get to work. This will be used towards your future legal expense.

Having a lawyer “on retainer”, though, is something that most individuals cannot afford. It means you pay an agreement upon amount regularly, and in exchange you have someone to turn to for legal services whenever you need. This is mostly used by businesses or people who frequently run into legal problems. Because small businesses face so many legal obstacles and responsibilities, it is common for them to retain a legal advisor or attorney even if they don’t plan to sue or be sued.

Hourly fees are the most common way that lawyers charge. This is usually hundreds of dollars and hour, and they will charge you for every minute that spend on a phone call, answering emails, or submitting documents on your behalf. They will send you an itemized list detailing to the minute how much time they’ve spent on your case, and it’s in your interest to review it carefully. More experienced lawyers will traditionally cost more than less experienced ones.

Pro Bono

You might be lucky enough to have a lawyer work on your case pro bono. This means that your lawyer will work on your case for free! Which cases a lawyer works on pro bono are up to their personal or their firm’s discretion, but many bar associations require that lawyers work a certain number of hour pro bono in order to provide legal aid to those who can’t afford it. Look on the American Bar’s website to find pro bono legal help in your area.

Court Costs for Civil Suits

In civil lawsuits, costs are often covered by the losing side. So if you are a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit, your costs will be covered by the defendant. Keep in mind, however, that some states put a limit on how much the losing side is required to cover, so ask your attorney for an estimate of what you’ll be held responsible for before you decide if filing is worth it for you.

Also keep in mind that court costs will pile up the longer the case goes on for. Court costs for small claims court are less than or around $100, depending on the amount of the claim. However, civil court claims can be tens of thousand dollars, depending on whether or not it goes to trial.

Should You Sue? When a Lawsuit is Worth Filing

If you genuinely believe that you have a case and you are willing to risk the above costs, it’s time to seek a lawyer’s advice. Ultimately, no matter what you’ve read online or how similar your friend’s case was to your own, a lawyer is the only one who will really be able to tell if your case is worth pursuing. Before you proceed forward on your own, get a lawyer’s opinion.

Understanding Damages and Cause

But what if you’re not sure whether your case is even worth talking to a lawyer? You need to first understand some basics about civil cases.

While news media often report damages in the millions, those are often punitive damages, which are not always awarded in civil lawsuits. Punitive damages are monetary amounts set by a judge meant to punish the defendant and deter others from behaving similarly. Whether punitive damages could even be awarded in your case will depend on the state you live in. Some states require the possibility to be clearly spelled out in the letter of law; others don’t even allow for the possibility.

Compensatory damages are just to compensate you for whatever wrong occured. Basically, it’s the amount required to get you back to where you were before the offending accident happened, barring legal fees. If you were injured as a result of the defendant, compensatory damages might be the amount of your hospital bill, nothing more.

Before you even get that far, though, you need to understand cause. While you might feel wronged, consider if the offender had an actual legal obligation or duty to you. This obligation may not need to be clearly written out in a mutually signed contract for you to proceed (although that can only help), but it has to rise above social niceties or expectations. Your landlord is required to provide certain necessities, but these requirements are often minimal. In order for your lawsuit to be worth it, you need to consider whether or not the offender had a formal obligation to act differently.

Filing a lawsuit is a serious situation, and it warrants a lot of careful consideration. Not only will this suit eat up a lot of your time, it will likely take a large bite out of your bank account as well. However, if you feel that it’s worth it to pursue righting this wrong, see if an attorney believes that you have a case. Only if you have legal cause to move forward and a strong conviction for the tough road ahead should you move forward.


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Dayton is a chronic Wikipedia addict, which is detrimental to her social life but stellar for her writing. She resides in Boise, ID, surrounded by her own frantic outlines, highlighted encyclopedias, and potatoes. The latter was not by choice.

This post was updated February 13, 2018. It was originally published January 18, 2018.