Basic Steps to Civil Litigation
Civil Lawsuits are disputes between people, businesses, or government agencies. Civil lawsuits proceed through the following process: pleadings, discovery, trial, and if necessary an appeal. At any time the lawsuit can be settled if both parties can agree on terms for settlement. Most cases are settled before reaching trial due in part to the costs associated to proceeding with the lawsuit. Arbitration is sometimes another alternative to a trial to accomplish resolution.
Each party in a lawsuit files initial documents with the court known as “pleadings.” The pleadings explain each party’s side of the dispute.
Litigation begins when the plaintiff files a complaint with the court and formally delivers a copy to the defendant. The complaint describes what the defendant did or failed to do that caused harm to the plaintiff.
The defendant is given a specificified amount of time to file an answer to the complaint. The answer provides the defendant’s side of the dispute. The defendant can enter counter-claims against the plaintiff, alleging that the plaintiff has harmed the defendant and should be held liable for that harm. The plaintiff will be required to respond to the defendant’s answer or counter-claims by filing a reply. In some instances, a party may request that the other party clarify or correct deficiencies in its factual allegations or legal theories, or may ask the court to dismiss part or all of the suit. This could lead to amended complaints or amended answers. Once the parties have completed the complaint, answer, and any reply, the issues for resolution by the court have been defined.
Thorough preparation is critical to the success of litigation. Discovery is the method by which parties gather relevant information from each other or from third parties. Research of the law, document review and organization, and witness interviews help clients and their lawyers assess the merits of claims and defenses. The extent to which these and other steps are needed is determined by the issues of the case.
Discovery is usually the longest part of the case. It begins soon after a lawsuit is filed and often does not stop until shortly before trial. During discovery, the parties ask each other and third parties for information about the facts and issues of the case. Information is gathered formally through written questions (known as “interrogatories”), requests for copies of documents, and requests for admission (which ask a party to admit or deny statements of fact). Another key method of obtaining information is to conduct depositions, in which witnesses are questioned under oath by the parties’ attorneys and the witnesses’ answers are recorded by a court reporter. Depositions are used to learn more about the facts of a case and about what the different witnesses contend happened. Depositions also may be used at trial to show inconsistencies in a witness’s story or to question the witness’s credibility. The recorded testimony from a deposition sometimes may also be used at trial in place of a witness who is not able to attend the trial in person.
Often a claim or defense requires support from expert witnesses to explain technical information or validate an argument. One or more experts might be needed to testify about the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the loss suffered by the plaintiff, or the existence and amount of the plaintiff’s damages. Expert witnesses work closely with a party’s representatives and attorneys to prepare the party’s case.
Before trial, the parties may use motions to ask the court to rule or act. Motions usually pertain to law or facts in the case, but sometimes they seek clarification or resolution of procedural disputes between the parties. Some motions, such as a motion for summary judgment, which asks the court to dismiss part or all of a plaintiff’s case or a defendant’s defense, dispose of issues without trial. Other motions might ask the court to order a party to produce documents or to exclude evidence from trial.
The duration of a lawsuit depends on the issues of the case, the amount of discovery to be conducted, and court scheduling and availability. The parties, guided by the rules of court, usually decide the timing of discovery. Trial dates are set by the court. Timing and scheduling differ between state and federal courts.