Suing and being sued

Civil law is the law that deals with interactions between people, between a person and a company or between two companies. It is NOT enforced by the police, but directly by individuals.

That means you can use civil laws to protect yourself when someone has done something wrong to you. It also means that if you do something wrong to another person, they might be able to take you to court.

You can break both the criminal and the civil law at the same time but you can ONLY be sued if you have broken a civil law.

There are lots of different types of civil laws but generally they all deal with what happens when some sort of “wrong” has been done between two parties. Since a “wrong” has been done, civil law is all about making things right again. Someone who has broken a civil law will normally have to pay the other person money to make up for what they did wrong.

Breach of contract and negligence are common examples of how someone might break civil laws. We explain these and some others in more detail below.

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What does “suing” someone mean?

If you sue a person, this means that you are taking them to court because you believe they have committed a wrong against you and therefore they have broken a civil law. However, suing someone can be a stressful, complicated, time-consuming and expensive process so it is really important that you seek legal advice first.

When you sue a person or you are sued, you are saying that because they have broken this law they need to repair it in some way.

Example 1:

If someone damages your property, you could sue them to pay the cost of repairs.

Example 2:

If someone doesn’t complete all the tasks they agreed to under a contract, you could sue them to compensate you for all the time or money you lost by them failing to complete the tasks.

Example 3:

When someone injures you in some way and it affects your life significantly, you could sue them for the effect it has had on your life.

Normally it is not worth suing someone over very small things because going to court is very expensive and can take a long time and if the issue isn’t that big then you might waste more time and money going to court than it’s worth.

Real life example:

Charlie, who is 12, contacted Youth Law Australia because students in his school were spreading rumours that he was violent and had been kicked out of his last school. Youth Law Australia explained that the rumours about him might have been defamation but a court case wasn’t the best way to deal with the rumours because it was unlikely that the court would find the student guilty of defamation. Youth Law Australia suggested that Charlie talk to the school or his parents about trying to stop the rumours.

When can I sue someone?

If you think someone has harmed you and you might be able to sue them, you can’t just sue them whenever you want. Sometimes you must sue within a specific time limit set by the law. The time limits will depend on what you are suing for and how old you were when you were harmed.

Can I sue someone if I’m under 18?

If you are under 18 and wish to sue someone, you will need a “next friend” unless the court considers otherwise, and your next friend will require a lawyer. A “next friend” is an adult who will help you conduct the case and will usually be either your parents or legal guardian.

How do I sue someone?

  • Initiating processes – This is where you start the court case by filing documents that explain what legal right was broken and what you want to happen to resolve the issue. The person or organisation you are suing may agree or disagree with you. If they disagree, they will file documents to defend themselves.
  • Trial – If neither party decides to end the case early by coming to an agreement, both parties will have to present their cases to a judge who will decide which party is right or which party has the stronger case.
  • Judgment – The judge will make a decision on the information provided.  If you are successful, then the judge may order that the other person or organisation pay you money.

What happens if someone sues you

When a person wants to enforce their legal rights against you, they may start a court case. If you have injured them, broken a contract with them, broken or damaged their property, or said something defamatory about them, they may want to sue you for money or to make you do something.

Also note that you can be sued for injuring someone or damaging their property at any age, as long as you understand the seriousness of, and the consequences of, your actions.

Being involved in a court case can be time consuming, expensive and confusing. If you have done what they say you have done, you should talk to your parents or a lawyer about your options and consider ways of dealing with the issue out of court (if possible).

If you are sued, the court may appoint you a “next friend” who will run the case on your behalf.

Basic court process when being sued:

  • Initiating processes – You will receive a document setting out what the other person is claiming you did and what they want from you. If you disagree with what the person says, you will have to file a document where you defend yourself.
  • Trial – If neither party decides to end the case early by coming to an agreement, both parties will have to present their cases to a judge who will decide whether you breached a right of the other party.
  • Judgment – The judge will make a decision and will notify you of the outcome. If you are unsuccessful, you may need to pay the other party the money requested.

Different types of lawsuits

a) Property damage and injury

If a person has been injured or their property has been damaged by someone else, they may sue for negligence.

To be able to sue someone for negligence you have to prove a number of things, including:

  • That you were owed a ‘duty of care’ by someone;
  • That person breached their duty of care;
  • You suffered some sort of injury because of that person’s negligence.

A ‘duty of care’ is a legal obligation for someone to take reasonable steps to protect you from harm. This does not mean they must protect you from all harm or danger, they only need to do everything that is reasonable in the circumstances.

A person or organisation will breach their duty of care if they don’t take reasonable steps to make sure that you are safe from harm. What they are required to do will depend on the circumstances of the case. In particular, it depends on what the risk of harm is, and what steps they could have taken to prevent injury.

Example 1:

If you’re hosting a party, you need to take reasonable care and provide a safe environment for your guests. If you allow too many people into the party and someone is trampled, the injured person could sue you and you might have to pay for their medical expenses.

Example 2:

If you trip over a puddle of water in your local grocery store and there were no signs to warn you that it was slippery, you might be able to sue the store for any medical costs to treat your injuries. You might also be able to claim lost wages if your injuries prevented you from working.

Sometimes it’s hard to say that one person is entirely responsible for the injury or damage caused. Contributory negligence is where the person who suffered an injury or damage was also negligent in some way. The law takes this into account by reducing the amount of money the person being sued has to pay.

Example:

If you cross a road and you’re hit by a driver who is driving too fast, the driver may be negligent. But if you cross the road without looking (for example because you were texting on your phone), the driver may still be negligent but you may also be contributorily negligent. The result is that you may receive less compensation than if you looked before crossing the road.

The laws about how to work out if you have been negligent are very complicated. If you suspect that you or someone you know has done something that has caused injury to another person, you need to seek immediate legal advice.

b) Breach of contract

Breach of contract is when you sign or agree to a contract but then you don’t do what you promised to do in the contract. You can be sued for breach of contract.

A contract is an agreement between two people who promise to do certain things and that the law says you can enforce. We make contracts every day, sometimes without even knowing we’ve entered into one. Contracts can be written, like when you’re buying a mobile phone or getting a credit card, or they can be made orally.

In general, you should not sign any document unless you have read it, understood it, agree with it and want to be legally bound by it. If you are not sure, ensure that you get legal advice before you sign a document that may have legal consequences.

c) Defamation

Defamation occurs where someone hurts the reputation of another by publishing false information about them.

Check out our Defamation page for more information.

What you can do without going to court

If you don’t want to sue someone, there are alternative ways to seek compensation.

  • Letter of demand – You can send a letter telling the other person that they owe you money. An example of a letter of demand can be found here: https://www.smallbusiness.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/inline-files/Letter-of-demand-outstanding-payment.docx
  • Negotiation or mediation – it is a good idea to discuss the damage or injury with the others involved and try to reach a solution that everyone is satisfied with.
  • Insurance – Drivers and organisations often have insurance to pay for damage or injury that occurs in connection with their car or organisation.
  • Other services – Human Services may provide assistance for medical expenses through Medicare or for loss of income through Centrelink. Contact Human Services for more information.

Someone to talk to

  • Kids Helpline is a free and private counselling service that is available 24/7, where you can talk about what’s going on with a counsellor. You can speak to Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (there can sometimes be a wait, but we encourage you to wait on the line), or via email or Web-chat here: https://kidshelpline.com.au/teens/
  • eHeadspace are also a free and private support service for young people up to 25 going through a tough time. Their number is 1800 650 890 or you can chat online here: https://www.eheadspace.org.au/

If you need specific advice, you can send us your enquiry here.

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