In our last blog post – Anatomy of a MN Lawsuit: In the Beginning There Was a Complaint – we discussed what comes first in a typical lawsuit, how the facts alleged in the Complaint are made, and the process of being summoned to Court. Before we get too far ahead and dive into the core of litigation, we need to address what is in the rest of the Complaint after the people, businesses, and interested parties are identified and one side of the story is told. In all actuality, this next part is the most important part of all: the Counts, or Causes of Action or the Claims that are being made.
Part 2: Claims for Relief
After the factual allegations in the Complaint are made, the next section is usually broken down into separate subsections that are numbered and given headings to state the type of claim being made.
For example, typical subsections for causes of actions and claims will include:
- Count I: Breach of Contract
- Count II: Fraud
- Count III: Tortious Interference with Contract
- Count IV: Negligence
- Count V: Violation of Minn.Stat. § 302A.751
- Count VI: Specific Performance
Each count listed is a law or legal standard that the plaintiff believes you – the defendant – violated based on their unchallenged and largely-unexamined side of the story. Based solely on the facts they allege occurred, the conduct was “against the law” as each count describes it.
You check your phone real quick while driving to the store and rear-end a Buick. You broke the law. You have a non-compete contract and you take a new job with your company’s competitor. You broke the law. You promise to pay for a hamburger next Tuesday if you can eat it today, and then you do not pay on Tuesday. You broke the law. You take more than your fair share from your business partner. You broke the law.
Driving responsibly. Keeping your word. Paying your debts. Treating someone the same way they are supposed to treat you. In other words, these are all standards society thinks you should adhere to in a civilized world. If you do not, you need to face consequences to keep the world orderly and prevent it from descending into chaos. At least, that’s what they say, anyway.
“Come On, I Barely Hit You”
But it is not enough to just drive like an idiot or break a promise. In civil law, someone has to suffer an “injury.” This is simple to understand when you rear-end someone at a red light, but it gets more complicated when fraud, misrepresentations, interfering with a contract, or violating a statute is the basis of the complaint and no one can point to any real physical harm being done. If you break a law and no one is hurt, have you actually broken the law? Yes. However, in the civil context, you may have broken the law but if no harm or damage has occurred, the law cannot do much to set things right. Think of it like the times you were caught jumping on the bed by your mother – she told you so many times not to do this but so long as you are fine and nothing is broken when she catches you, the only thing she does next is tell you again not to do it.
This is not to say “no harm no foul” though, because some laws do not require damages to be proven, such as in defamation cases. But the fact that a law was broken and no harm occurred usually will mean the case is “not actionable.” In simpler terms, why would you hire a lawyer and sue someone if you were not damaged by what occurred? Most people will not.
If the Complaint does not allege that the things you did wrong violated a set standard and then caused harm, the case is most likely subject to being dismissed upfront; no one has time to split hairs, especially not a judge presiding over a handful of cases at a time. Someone may be very unhappy with your behavior or actions but if it did not hurt them and/or break a rule society has deemed important enough to call a law capable of being set out as a Count in a written Complaint, they probably cannot state a claim against you. When their hands are tied or folded, so are the law’s, and it will be unable to assist them or provide a “fix”, which is a nice way of saying forcing you to act or slamming you with a monetary judgement.
Next: Answering the Complaint.