A civil lawsuit can seem complex or confusing for those unfamiliar with legal processes. If you are involved in a civil lawsuit, you shouldn’t feel discouraged by the various steps or legal jargon.
Understanding the steps and terminology of civil lawsuits is key in keeping yourself educated during legal proceedings. In this article, we break down the basic steps of the civil lawsuit process to help 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 completely separate entity from criminal proceedings or criminal court.
A civil lawsuit is a dispute 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 minor car accident, to major multidistrict litigation over a dangerous medication that involves thousands of people.
What are the Steps in a Civil Lawsuit?
Civil litigation goes through specific steps – or proceedings. Your first step should be to consult with potential representatives, specifically an experienced personal injury attorney, for legal advice about your potential lawsuit.
You need to make sure that you have a valid case so that you do not waste time and resources filing a case that is unlikely to be successful or make it to trial. An experienced attorney will help you to determine the strength of your case.
You should also be sure that your case falls within your 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 information that you have during a consultation because it gives your potential attorney a complete understanding of the case and allows them to plan future steps in an accurate manner. An open and honest consultation will give you the most accurate prediction of your case’s outcome.
After an initial consultation, your civil lawsuit case will follow four common steps:
Pleadings – the First Step in a Civil Lawsuit
Pleadings are the initial step in the civil lawsuit. Each side, or party, will file paperwork in the relevant 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 relevant rules for courts in your area. This step should be taken with an attorney. You and your attorney must find a court that fits the following criteria before filing your case:
- 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 a constitutional issue, your case will likely be heard in front of a federal judge. If your claim falls under state law, such as auto accidents or trespassing claims do, 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 involves constitutional law, you will need to file the lawsuit with a federal court. If your lawsuit involves 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 a disputed monetary amount is under a certain 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. If 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 defective drug or medical device, you will likely have to file suit in either the district where you reside or in the district where the manufacturer is located.
After selecting the appropriate court for your case, your attorney will draft a complaint. Once the initial complaint is filed, the civil lawsuit is legally underway.
What is a Complaint?
A complaint is a formal document filed by the plaintiff with the court. The plaintiff is also responsible for formally delivering a complaint to the defendant. A complaint provides the plaintiff’s description of 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?
An answer is a response to the plaintiff’s complaint. An answer provides 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 counterclaim if they so choose. The counterclaim(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 counterclaim 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 when both parties begin to obtain information to help strengthen their arguments.
Broad rights of discovery is a theory stating 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 does 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, and typically are doctors, scientists, or people with proven specialized knowledge on the situation at hand.
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 a request for 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 potential 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 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 searches 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:
- Personal Injury Lawsuit
- Why Hire a Personal Injury Attorney?
- Gathering Evidence
- Assessing Damages
- What are Compensatory Damages and Punitive Damages?
- Receiving Compensation
- General Liability Guide
- Premises Liability Guide
- What is a Bellwether Trial?
- What is a Multidistrict Litigation (MDL)?
- Statute of Limitations Guide