Civil actions are normally cases between private persons or corporations to resolve disputes (a) involving the break-up of a family or domestic relationship (b) the breach of a legal duty owed by one party to another and to fix damages for loss caused by the breach, or (c) to fashion a remedy to prevent future loss. The most common civil actions deal with:
- divorce and family matters,
- breaches of contract,
- negligently caused personal injury and property damage,
- debt collection and foreclosures,
- landlord-tenant disputes,
- civil infractions or traffic infractions, and
- protection from abuse.
A more complete list of types of civil cases heard in the District Court cases is available in 4 MRS § 152.
The State (or any other governmental body) may bring a civil action, if its interests have been injured. But, in many circumstances, the State (or other governmental body) may not be sued as a defendant. Put differently, government bodies may only be sued if the Legislature has stated that they may be sued by a citizen for causing a specific type of injury.
If you are bringing a civil action, you must prove your case against the party you are suing by a "preponderance of the evidence" (which roughly means that your version of events is more likely true than not true). This is a lesser standard of proof than in a criminal case. In some civil cases, you must prove your case by "clear and convincing evidence", which is higher than the preponderance standard but still below the criminal (beyond a reasonable doubt) standard.
You must have good grounds to bring a suit. If you file a suit frivolously or to harass a person, the court may assess a monetary penalty against you or your attorney.
The Legislature has created a special class of civil actions that includes offenses not regarded as serious enough to be dealt with as crimes. These less serious offenses are called civil violations or traffic infractions. They include minor traffic infractions, possession of a small amount of marijuana, and violations of town and city laws (called ordinances), such as leash laws. You may be fined, but not imprisoned, for a civil violation or a traffic infraction.
A law enforcement officer who believes that you have committed a civil violation or a traffic infraction will issue you a ticket or summons instructing you to appear in District Court on a certain date. At the trial, the District Attorney or City Attorney must prove that it is more likely than not that you acted as charged. If you do not appear in court or pay your fine on the day specified, the offense becomes more serious. In the case of a traffic violation, you may lose your driver's license.