Civil Lawsuit – The Civil Litigation Process Explained In Steps


civil lawsuitA civil lawsuit can seem complex and, for most of us, confusing. If you are involved in a civil lawsuit, you shouldn’t feel discouraged by the various steps or legal jargon. Civil lawsuits aren’t actually too hard to wrap your head around once you understand the steps and some of the terminology. We broke down the basic steps of the civil lawsuit process to help our clients better understand what exactly is going on with their lawsuit.



What is a Civil Lawsuit?

A civil lawsuit, which is sometimes also called civil litigation, is a lawsuit based on non-criminal statutes, meaning it is a separate entity from a criminal proceeding. A civil lawsuit is a dispute that is handled legally by the courts, such as a personal injury lawsuit. Civil lawsuits commonly involve individuals, groups of people, people and businesses, or other entities.

A civil lawsuit can range from a small claim, such as a fender bender, to major multidistrict litigation involving thousands of individuals.


What are the Steps in a Civil Lawsuit?

Civil litigation goes through specific steps – or proceedings. First and foremost, you should consult with potential representatives for legal advice. Before anything else, it is important that you consult with a personal injury attorney about your potential personal injury lawsuit. You need to be sure that you have a valid case so that you do not waste your own time and resources filing a case that is unlikely to be successful or a case that is unlikely to make it to trial. An experienced civil lawyer will help you to determine the strength of your case.

You should also be sure that your case falls within the state’s statute of limitations. Ask a legal representative to be sure that you are filing the case within the appropriate time frame.

Consultations are confidential, so don’t withhold information about your case from an attorney. It is best to share all the information that you have about your case during a consultation because it gives your potential attorney a better understanding of the case. An open and honest consultation will give you the most accurate prediction of the outcome of your case.

After an initial consultation, your civil lawsuit case will follow four common steps

  1. Pleadings
  2. Discovery
  3. Trial
  4. Appeal


Pleadings – the First Step in a Civil Lawsuit

The pleadings are the initial step in the civil lawsuit. Each side, or party, will file paperwork, in the right court, to explain their side of the story. The person bringing on the lawsuit, or plaintiff, will file a complaint. The person being alleged of wrongdoing, or defendant, will file an answer.

Choosing an appropriate location for your lawsuit requires legal analyses and knowledge of the relevant rules for the courts in your area. This step should be taken with an attorney. You and your attorney must find a court that fits multiple criteria before filing your case. The court must have personal jurisdiction over the defendants involved, subject matter jurisdiction over your case-type, and it must be located in the appropriate venue.

  • Personal Jurisdiction – For a court to have personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the individual or company must have an appropriate relationship to the forum county, state, or federal district and the defendant must be served properly. Simply put, this means the person or company you are suing must be involved in activities in the forum and receive notice that a suit has been filed in which the individual or company has been named as a defendant.
  • Subject Matter Jurisdiction– Depending on the type of lawsuit you are filing, your case may be heard in either a federal or state court. If your claim falls under federal law, such as civil rights or constitutional issue, your case will likely be heard in front of a federal judge. If you claim falls under state law, such as auto accidents or trespassing claims, your case will likely be heard in front of a state-level judge. The court in which you choose to file your case must be able to handle the subject matter of the case. For example:

If the case has to do with constitutional law, you will need to file the lawsuit with a federal court. If your lawsuit has to do with family law, you will need to file the case with a state or regional family court. If you are filing an appeal, you need to file with an appellate court. If the disputed amount is under a certain monetary figure, you would file in small claims court. etc.

  • Venue — Your case must be filed in an appropriate court based on proximity to where the incident in question occurred or where the parties are located. In most cases, the lawsuit must be tried in the same district in which the incident in question occurred. So, say that you were injured in a personal injury accident, you will likely have to file the lawsuit in the district where the injury occurred. However, if you were injured by a bad drug, you will likely have to file suit in either the district where you reside or in the district where the manufacturer is located.

After choosing the appropriate court for your case, your attorney will draft the complaint. Once the initial complaint is filed, the civil lawsuit is legally underway.


What is a Complaint?

The complaint is a formal document filed by the plaintiff with the court. The plaintiff is also responsible for formally delivering the complaint to the defendant.

The complaint is just that – a complaint. It details the plaintiff’s description of the events that lead to the dispute, outlining the ways in which the defendant caused harm to the plaintiff. The complaint also establishes a legal basis for holding the defendant responsible for the defendant’s alleged actions. The complaint generally contains an explanation for why the court holds jurisdiction over the case as well.


What is an Answer?

The answer is just that – an answer. The answer is a response to the plaintiff’s complaint. The answer details the defendant’s description of the events that lead to the dispute, outlining any inaccuracies or falsehoods that they find in the complaint.

The defendant has a limited amount of time to file an answer.

The defendant can file a counter-claim if they so choose. The counter-claim(s) is an allegation(s) against the plaintiff, outlining the ways in which the plaintiff caused harm to the defendant. The counter-claim also establishes a legal basis for holding the plaintiff responsible for the plaintiff’s alleged actions.

The plaintiff will sometimes file a response to the answer or counter-claim in the form of a reply.


Amended Complaints & Answers

As a response to replies, or in the instance that one party requests clarification over legal theories or allegations in the other party’s pleadings, a complaint or answer may be amended.

A party can ask that a specific part of any pleadings also be dismissed by the court, in which cases, a pleading would also be amended.


Discovery – the Second Step in a Civil Lawsuit

After both parties have completed the pleadings process, both parties will enter discovery. Discovery is a process in which both parties begin to obtain information to help strengthen their arguments. The theory of broad rights of discovery is that both the plaintiff and defendant will enter the trial with as much information as possible to make their case. Discovery also keeps the parties from hiding information from one another.

Discovery is generally the longest part of the civil litigation process. Discovery begins after all pleadings have been filed and do not end until shortly before the trial.


How do Parties Gain Knowledge through Discovery?

Each party will obtain evidence through demands for production of documents, depositions of parties and witnesses, written interrogatories (questions and answers written under oath), written requests for admissions of fact, an examination of the scene, and the petitions and motions employed to enforce discovery rights.

Parties may also use expert witnesses to gain knowledge about the case during discovery. Expert witnesses are brought in to validate arguments and testify on behalf of a party’s claim.


Motions During or After Discovery

Before the trial begins, either during the discovery process or shortly after, parties may use motions to ask the court to rule or act. The motion can be a request to amend or dismiss part of the case, question the legal basis or languages used by the other party, or clarification of certain issues in the lawsuit.


Trial – the Third Step in a Civil Lawsuit

After discovery has ended, if the dispute is not resolved out of court, the civil lawsuit will move to trial.

Before the trial begins, both parties will submit a brief to the judge. A brief is a document that outlines the party’s argument as well as any evidence that the party will present during the trial.

At the trial, both the plaintiff and the defense will present their arguments to either a judge or jury. Trials involving a judge and no jury are referred to as bench trials. If the trial is set to be decided by a jury, both parties help make juror selections through a pre-trial process of potential-juror interviews called a voir dire.

Once the trial begins, both parties present their opening statements. Opening statements are brief outlines of the parties’ arguments.

After opening statements are made, each party introduces its case. The plaintiff always presents its case first. The defense presents its case after. After the defense has presented its case, the plaintiff has one last opportunity to present additional evidence – known as rebuttal evidence.

Each party will present its cases using evidence, which can include documents, expert testimony, or exhibits that support its argument. Witnesses may be called to the stand for questioning. After a witness is examined by one party, the opposing party can choose to cross-examine the witness.

Once each party has had an opportunity to present its case, both will make a closing argument.

In a jury trial, after closing arguments, the judge instructs the jury on the legal basis that it should apply to the evidence. The jury deliberates for a period of time until a verdict is reached.

In a bench trial, the judge deliberates for a period of time until a decision or verdict is reached.


After Verdict has been Made

After the verdict is made, a party can choose to challenge the verdict. These challenges are more common during jury trials because errors and disregard of the law or legal definitions occur more often by juries. A party can file a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, asking for the judge to make a decision without consideration to the jury’s verdict. A party can also file a motion for a new trial.


Appeal – the Fourth Step in a Civil Lawsuit

If a party does not agree with the result of the trial, they can appeal the decision. If a decision is appealed, then the civil lawsuit is presented to an appellate court that reviews the previous proceedings of the lawsuit. Each party will submit a brief and a record of evidence from trial to the appellate court. The appellate court looks for any errors in legality made during the pre-trial or trial proceedings.

After reviewing the proceedings, the appellate court releases an opinion, which is the appellate court’s decision. The opinion can either affirm the verdict made by the trial court or find an error, in which case the appellate court may reverse the verdict or order a new trial be conducted by the trial court.


Learn More About the Lawsuit Process:

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22 Comments Posted

  1. Useful information .

    Posted by Prabhakar on Mon Mar 11 2019 11:39am

  2. is it normal procedure for a civil rights lawyer to have the client sign a hippa release to check for leins

    Posted by unknown on Wed Jul 31 2019 6:04pm

    • Every state has specific laws and responsibilities regarding attorneys and their clients’ liens so “normal procedure” varies. Your question is unique in that you are asking with regards to a “civil rights lawyer.” However, in a personal injury case, it is not unusual for a lawyer to assist his client in determining outstanding medical liens.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Fri Aug 23 2019 10:30am

  3. I need to sue my old landlord

    Posted by Jacqueline Smith on Tue Sep 10 2019 1:52pm

    • Jacqueline – You can feel free to reach us at our toll-free number 1-888-508-6752 any time. We offer free no-obligation case consultations to all potential clients. You can also use our “Kasey” bot at the bottom-right side of the homepage to begin filling out your information.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Wed Sep 11 2019 5:03pm

  4. I need advice I had a construction company build a deck and do the electric work and it was very wrongly done ..the company provides is edition to refund my money i ahve recorded texts emails paperwork and clal for proof and they never came through and now won’t answer my calls or nothing

    Posted by ANGELA J GIDDLEY on Fri Sep 27 2019 1:52pm

    • Angela, you can always reach out to us via phone 1-888-508-6752 to discuss the specifics of your incident, free of charge. Although our firm primarily handles personal injury litigation, we may be able to put you in contact with a trusted firm or attorney in your area who can help with this contract dispute.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Mon Sep 30 2019 3:28pm

  5. Hi, We are using a litigation attorney to handle a civil case that involves shareholder oppression, which resulted in a lock out, and discontinuation of documented /filed agreement for equal compensation.
    Initially, the attorney created and served a actionable complaint with a expectation for response by a certain date. Now, that date has passed months ago, he is engaging in phone calls with opposing counsel , charging us large sums of money, and discussing a buyout according to the agreement , ( which they violated to begin with, and will not abide by) with no valuation of the company pursuant to buy out according to agreement. Knowing that an evaluation could have taken place initially , and understanding OC wanting to delay, and being fully prepare to pay to file suite, ( document previously served) , why is our attorney involved in endless calls and thousands of dollars in billing, with no end in site? Months and months, no valuation, and the attorney is not responding to even provide us with what he believes the objectives and goals are, is he responding a request to discuss. We have filed legal Corp agreements for this Corp.

    Posted by Greg Outman on Thu Oct 24 2019 11:27am

  6. An ex friend borrowed 60000 from me an offered to pay me back 82500 in return for the favor. I was repayed 60.000 but they refused to pay the interest. They are the ones who came to me and asked to borrow money it was their terms. Do I have recourse

    Posted by Rita on Wed Oct 30 2019 2:27pm

    • Rita – This really just comes down to whether you, as the lender, and your ex-friend, as the borrow, how a written contract for the arrangement. If you had a written contract that clearly established interest rates, there may be an opportunity for you to take legal recourse. If you did not have a written contract, it will be very difficult for you to take legal action.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Wed Oct 30 2019 3:19pm

  7. I won a civil case judgement against a person that still owes me 511.00 and the court costs. He has still not paid me. I called the district magistrates office after the allotted time for him to make settle passed. I now have to go in for a second signature and take it to the county court house. For what? How am I ever going to get my settlement at this point.

    Posted by Gregory Bryan on Fri Jan 3 2020 7:59am

    • Did the judge set a specific deadline for payment? If this deadline has passed and you still have not collected, you may need to take additional legal steps with the court in order to collect. You may want to talk to the attorney that represented you in your civil case about the possibility of wage garnishments or personal property collections.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Fri Jan 3 2020 3:15pm

  8. Is it fair when you start out with one attorney that you did not hire but the owner of the firm put this attorney with you. Then the attorney you originally hired becomes your attorney then he hires another attorney outside the firm now hes your attorney. This attorney rewrites the complaint/petition and you are charged again for the new petition?

    Posted by Anna Ford on Tue Mar 17 2020 3:31pm

    • Anna – we would have to know a bit more about your case, first. It is not unheard of for an attorney to move off of a lawsuit and hand it off to another attorney within their firm. It is also not out of the ordinary for a law firm to transfer a case to another firm, especially if the firm given the case is more well suited to try the litigation. As for the payments, that would depend on the contract that you signed with your first representative firm. You may want to have a third-party attorney review your contract. At TorHoerman Law, we try and avoid that confusion by operating on a contingency fee basis – so, we never ask for payment upfront and only get paid after our clients have received a settlement or verdict first.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Fri Mar 20 2020 9:21am

  9. If I have a video were I’m sleep and it shows the police walking up on me with their tasers drawn then they say oh he’s sleep then walk up to me slams my head into the floors and when I wake up petrified they tased me screaming stop resisting. But the only injuries I have is a bruise on my side were the taser was and a star in my eye from them slamming my face. do I have a winning case? Even tho I was taken to jail for 35 day and I’ve been out for 14 days. Still fighting the case they are trying to put on me?

    Posted by Larry on Sat Mar 21 2020 1:21am

    • Larry, we would have to know the specifics of your case and the situation surrounding your arrest before we could properly assess whether there are grounds for any possible misdeeds from the police department.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Mon Mar 23 2020 9:47am

  10. I’m being sued for wrongful death. I have a jury trial scheduled. Will I be arrested if I dont go?

    Posted by Jack Williams on Sun Mar 22 2020 5:43pm

    • The judge does have discretion to file a bench warrant – which amounts to an arrest warrant – if you fail to appear in court.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Mon Mar 23 2020 9:49am

  11. What third party lien resolution company do you use and how can I contact them about my liens

    Posted by KW on Thu Nov 5 2020 6:56pm

    • We partner with different companies and it’s a project-by-project decision. Each of them, though, prefer that we handle all client contact. If you have a question about your liens, you should reach out to the lawyer or paralegal that handles your case.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Fri Nov 6 2020 8:58am

  12. I’m on section 8 my kids grew into adults on my voucher, after age 18 they became the other adults on the lease. One son refused to take himself off my lease for over to years and lived with his girlfriend and her mom, and I had to provide proof that I was reminding him about the rent in order to have him removed from my voucher. I did show proof and he was removed. She said I would have to take him to court for the back rent. Meanwhile he accumulated a bill of about 13,000 in past rent that needs to be paid back before I can move out of the house I’m living in. Is this civil?

    Posted by Wanda on Tue Nov 17 2020 8:18pm

    • Hello Wanda – It depends on the specifics of your case and where you are located. The matter of housing would be a civil housing court matter. So, in short, yes – you would need to work through the civil courts in order to work out this issue. Your son’s action could be considered criminal, but we could not determine that unless we knew more about the situation. We suggest that you seek assistance from a local attorney who is experienced in housing court and is familiar with local tenant’s rights law.

      Posted by Jordan Terry on Wed Nov 18 2020 12:02pm

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