If you are a party in a lawsuit, the process can seem both scary and overwhelming. Most people have never had this experience, and without a basic understanding of civil litigation, trials and court can be perceived as daunting. Fortunately, most civil litigation lawsuits follow a basic, often formulaic, trajectory.
The first component of any civil lawsuit begins with what are known as the “pleadings.” In essence the pleadings are the documents that activate the litigation process and give a basic overview of what claims a party is alleging. A plaintiff in a lawsuit files a “complaint” with the court. This complaint is also formally served on the defendants. Within the complaint, the plaintiff (through his or her attorney) alleges what harm the defendant caused and also provides the legal foundation that holds the named defendant responsible.
Following the filing of the complaint, the defendant will respond with an “answer” within an allotted amount of time. Essentially, the answer outlines and explains the defendant’s response to the charges laid out in the plaintiff’s complaint. In addition to their response to the specific allegations found in the complaint, the defendant is afforded the opportunity to file a counter-claim. A counter-claim is a defendant’s claim that the plaintiff may have harmed the defendant in some way, and should be held liable. This counter-claim can sometimes give rise to a reply from the plaintiff, depending on the allegations contained in the counter-claim. It is also important to note that within certain allotted times following the filing of pleadings, both the plaintiff and the defendant are provided opportunities to amend their pleadings without suffering any harm to their case. This is often done to add additional relevant parties, or amend information found in their initial pleadings.
Sometime after the pleadings are filed (timing is often dependent on jurisdiction and the court’s current calendar), the court will call a scheduling conference where all parties will meet with the judge to determine the major dates for the remainder of the case. This includes trial, and everything leading up until that point. Typically, the first relevant dates will dictate how discovery is to be carried out.
Broadly, discovery refers to the curated exchange of information between all parties in a lawsuit. Discovery serves multiple purposes, and is typically the longest part of any given case. Discovery includes interrogatories which request parties to answer specific questions as they relate to a case. For example, interrogatories in an auto accident case may include, “Were you using your cellphone at the time of the accident?” or “Have you ever had injuries to your back prior to this accident?” More than anything, attorneys use discovery strategically to look for information that might help their case, and harm the other’s side case. Discovery can become contentious, especially when parties seek to keep information about their clients private, and outside the scope of discovery. It is uncommon for a court to weigh in on discovery unless there are genuine disagreements that all parties are unable to resolve amongst themselves.
In addition to the exchange of information through the use of interrogatories, discovery will also contain requests for production of documents. The scope of these requests is often broad and all encompassing. Alongside document exchanges, parties will conduct interviews and depositions of relevant parties. Depositions include sworn testimony from a witness that has the potential to be used at trial. For example, in an auto accident case, depositions may include testimony from witnesses, police officers, and doctors who have treated any injured individuals. These depositions help parties learn about the case that their opposition hopes to present. Insurance companies will often hire a doctor, or multiple doctors, to evaluate plaintiffs and their injuries. These doctors often represent insurance companies on multiple cases throughout the year. Sometimes these are referred to as independent medical examinations, but they could be more appropriately characterized as defense medical examinations as there is disagreement over whether or not these exams are truly independent. If testimony from anyone in a deposition is inconsistent or contradicts their testimony at trial, then attorneys from either side may use their sworn testimony in a deposition to impeach that witnesses credibility.
When parties in a lawsuit utilize “expert witnesses”, a court will often require a written report regarding what their testimony may contain at trial. For doctors, this report may be very comprehensive and can include years of an injured person’s medical care and treatment. Additional experts might include crash reconstruction experts who can more accurately describe how a collision occurred, or vocational experts, who may provide testimony regarding a injured person’s lost wages, or lost of future earning capacity.
Prior to trial, parties may exchange and file motions with the court asking for the court’s ruling or specific action on a matter. They typically ask the court to deviate from normal trial practice and procedure. These motions often require support from legal briefs that attorneys file with the court. Additionally, the court may require that the parties argue their rationale for or against filed motions, in front of the court.
Many civil litigation cases that go into suit are ultimately settled before trial occurs. This is most commonly done through mediation, which is a popular type of alternative dispute resolution. Mediation entails a neutral third party mediator who will help try to reach a middle ground between adverse parties. The mediator is either picked by the court, or agreed upon by all parties in a case. Typically, the results of mediation, and the fact that it occurred are confidential. Mediations are not inherently binding, and if one or both parties do not reach a mutually agreed upon middle ground, they are not prejudiced or held to their negotiations. The majority of personal injury lawsuits are settled through mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution and do not ever get to trial.
Before trial occurs, most judge will order a pre-trial conference where they discuss particulars for trial and address any attempt by the parties to resolve the case prior to trial. Broadly, the aforementioned provides a brief overview of the civil litigation process. Every case is different, and unfolds accordingly. Collectively, the Groth Law Firm has decades of trial experience and success. Call today to discuss your free case consultation.