You step in a puddle of spilled cooking oil in a grocery store and break three bones in your hand. You're a concert pianist. How can you recover your lost income?

Your landlord claims you broke several things in your apartment that you didn't pay for. You know they were broken when you moved in. The forms you signed when you moved in don't specifically mention those items. How do you keep from having to replace something you aren't responsible for?

Lawsuits are filed every day. In fact, according to an article on the Citizens for a Sound Economy Web site, there are more than 15 million civil cases processed annually in state courts alone, at a cost of over $1.8 billion. Although the number of product liability cases in 2000 was less than half of the number in 1997, the courts are still clogged with civil lawsuits. Most courts are trying to encourage people to settle their disputes out of court, and some require mediation at some point in the process before you can go to trial.

In this article, we'll talk about what you have to go through to take someone to court -- or, what you might be able to do to avoid court and still get some satisfaction. Keep in mind that the legal process differs from state to state so this may not always be exactly the way it works in your area.