Walkthrough of a Civil Lawsuit

Courtesy of Urban Thier & Federer, P.A., International Law Firm

Unlike criminal lawsuits, where the government seeks to impose penalties on individuals for violating laws, a civil lawsuit acts to resolve matters between two individual parties. Individuals and corporations alike can participate in civil lawsuits, and may sue or be sued when another party has wronged or “injured” them. In civil cases, an injury can range from property damage to monetary loss to a breach of contract or covenant and more. When a party believes that it has been injured it may bring a lawsuit as a plaintiff, against the party who they believe caused the injury, the defendant.

The procedure for bringing a civil action, regardless of where it commences, follows the same basic procedure, which is outlined in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. State Rules of Civil Procedure for each individual state control when a lawsuit is brought in state court rather than federal court, but state rules often follow federal rules closely with a few minor exceptions.

Complaint and Answer: Initial Pleadings

A lawsuit begins when a document called a complaint is filed with the clerk of the court by the plaintiff. A complaint states the cause of action, or why the lawsuit is being brought, and asks for damages or other relief from a defendant who the plaintiff believes caused the injury. The complaint states the facts and legal arguments supporting the plaintiff’s claim that an injury occurred and that the defendant is liable. Once the complaint is filed, the clerk of the court issues a summons. This summons provides the defendant with notice of the lawsuit and a copy of the complaint. For some cases, the plaintiff must serve the defendant using a process server or other uninterested third party to ensure that the defendant has knowledge of the lawsuit.

Once a defendant has been served with the complaint, he or she has 21 days to respond. This response is in the form of an answer, which admits or denies the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint and lets the court know what facts the defendant agrees with and those with which he or she does not agree. Once both of these documents have been filed, the attorneys for each side will consider the appropriate next steps based on the contents of both the complaint and the answer.

Early Motions

Often, attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant will consider using appropriate motions in order to move forward with a civil action. A motion is a pleading filed in a case which requests an action or order by the court. If, for example, the complaint does not state an injury, or does not provide facts which lead a reasonable person to believe that the defendant is responsible, the defendant may file a motion to dismiss the action. The defendant may file a motion to dismiss the case even before answering a complaint.

If the defendant does not file an answer, or if the answer does not contest the claims of the plaintiff that the defendant is liable for the injuries alleged, the plaintiff may file a motion for summary judgment, where the court decides the case without it ever going to trial. If these early motions are denied by the court or if the attorneys for either side decide not to file such motions, the lawsuit will proceed.

Discovery and Pre-Trial

In order to obtain a complete picture of each party’s case before trial, the parties will complete discovery. During discovery, documents and information are exchanged which relate to the claims brought forth in the complaint, or which could reasonably lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. The most common forms of discovery are: (1) Depositions; (2) Interrogatories; (3) Requests for Production; and (4) Requests for Admission.

Depositions are sworn, out-of-court statements by a party or witness which may be used as testimony. These usually take place with attorneys for each side asking questions of the deponent, while a court reporter transcribes the event. Depositions may be used at trial if the deponent is unavailable, or they may be used to impeach a party when their in-court answer is not consistent with the prior testimony.

Interrogatories are similar to depositions in that they follow a question-and-answer format which are served on one party by another. The number of interrogatories are set by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure at 25 written interrogatories, including discrete subparts. This is to ensure that parties do not overly burden each other with extensive discovery, and acts to keep interrogatories relevant and focused on the claims brought forth in the initial complaint.

Requests for Production to a party allow the opposing party to inspect, copy, test or sample items which are in the responding party’s possession, custody or control. Designated documents, electronically stored information, or tangible items that are relevant to the instant action are all eligible for these discovery requests. These requests must describe with reasonable particularity each item or category of items to be inspected, and must specify a reasonable time and place for inspection, if applicable. With most files now being electronically stored, requests for production are generally much more manageable than they were several years ago. Requests for Production allow each party to have a complete picture of all relevant information regarding the civil lawsuit.

Requests for Admissions allow a party to request that another party “admit for the purposes of the pending action … the truth of any matters within the scope” of discovery. When drafted with particularity and timed well, requests for admissions are an effective way to expedite the legal process by establishing strengths and weaknesses in each party’s case. These admissions may be used to establish a basis for summary judgment, or may be used in settlement negotiations or referenced in cross-examination at trial.

As the process of discovery proceeds and the case moves closer to trial, the parties will have pre-trial conferences with the judge. These conferences allow the parties to inform the judge as to how discovery is proceeding, and to narrow the issues for trial if discovery provides a basis to resolve certain issues before trial. During the pre-trial phase, attorneys for either side may request that the judge exclude specific witnesses, evidence, or legal arguments if they are not proper. These requests are granted or denied by the court to continue to narrow the scope of what is argued at trial. Sometimes, these pre-trial rulings will prompt a party to try to settle rather than take the case to trial.

Trial and Judgment

Once at trial, the plaintiff presents evidence first to a finder of fact. In jury cases, the finders of fact are the jury, and in non-jury cases, the finders of fact are comprised of one or more judges. After the plaintiff presents evidence, the defense has a chance to present their case. The plaintiff has the burden of proving his case and each element therein, generally by a “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This requires that it is more likely than not that the claims of the plaintiff are true. This is a lower standard than the burden of proof at a criminal trial, of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If either party has an issue with how the trial is conducted, they may object in writing to preserve an objection for appeal.

After both sides present their cases, the finder(s) of fact decide as to the issue of liability. If the finder(s) of fact find for the defendant, then the case is over, and the defendant is released from liability. The judge will then enter an order which releases defendant from liability for the plaintiff’s claims. If the finder(s) of fact find for the plaintiff, judgment is entered in favor of the plaintiff. The court then awards either a legal or equitable remedy, or both, as the court deems just and proper. A legal remedy comes in the form of monetary damages which the defendant must pay to the plaintiff. Equitable remedies include positive or negative injunctions, which require or prohibit the defendant from doing or refraining from doing some act.

Appeals and Enforcement of a Judgment

If one or both parties are dissatisfied with the outcome of a trial and believe that the outcome was not legally appropriate, they may file an appeal. An appellate court will review the appeal and may dismiss it, hear and affirm the judgment, hear and reverse the judgment, or send it back to the trial court with additional instructions to correct errors that the appellate court has found. In larger or more complicated lawsuits, a case may go between a court of appeals and a trial court multiple times before a final resolution is reached.

Enforcement of a judgment can be difficult in and of itself, but prevailing parties have several options available to them in order to collect on a judgment entered in their favor. The failure of a defendant to obey the final judgment is cause to find the defendant in contempt of court, and additional suits and penalties may be warranted for such contempt. A plaintiff may also obtain a court order to take property belonging to a defendant in order to satisfy the judgment, or may place a lien on the defendant’s property. Even if a defendant moves to a different state, a judgment may be enforceable against the defendant.

Knowledgeable Attorneys

While the foregoing provides a basic overview of a civil lawsuit, there are always individual factors which come into consideration depending on which motions are filed, what discovery is propounded, and the individual decisions of the attorneys and parties themselves. Controlling deadlines and extensions at each step in the process are outlined by the Federal or State Rules of Procedure, and meeting each deadline ensures that a case will proceed. Even if a plaintiff or defendant has a legitimate and compelling case, by failing to follow the correct procedure a case can be lost on procedural grounds alone. Similarly, each area of law such as contracts, torts, family law, or malpractice claims has its own facets, and a practicing attorney participating in any civil suit should have a working knowledge of civil procedure as well as of the specific area of law.

Whether you have been served with a civil lawsuit or believe you may have a civil cause of action, it is highly recommended that you seek competent counsel. The attorneys at Urban Thier & Federer, P.A. have extensive trial and litigation experience to serve clients throughout the United States and abroad. Call today for a personalized consultation to discuss your situation from one of our experienced civil litigation attorneys.