Stages of Civil Litigation

Most people know that when a lawsuit is filed, it can lead to a trial. But they don’t understand all the steps that happen after a suit is filed but before the trial phase. These stages of civil litigation will determine if a lawsuit actually makes it to a courtroom.  In most cases, a jury will never hear a dispute. Somewhere along the stages, the parties will reach an outcome.

Rustin Smith, an associate attorney with Stewart, Melvin & Frost, will discuss the Stages of Civil Litigation.

Question: Of all the civil lawsuits filed, how many make it to trial?

Rustin: A lot of people will find this surprising but the studies show that less than 1 percent of cases make it to trial. Most folks are under the impression that when a lawsuit is filed, it ends in a courtroom with a jury or judge deciding the outcome. There are factors that affect a lawsuit before it’s file and especially after it’s filed. These factors are why court cases can take a long time and be expensive to resolve.

Question: What are the stages of civil litigation?

Rustin: There are five general stages of a civil court case: pleadings, discovery, motions, trial and possibly appeals. Civil lawsuits arise out of disputes between people, businesses, or other entities. Civil lawsuits generally proceed through these five distinct steps.

However, parties can halt this process by voluntarily settling at any time. As I mentioned early, most cases settle before reaching trial. Arbitration is sometimes another alternative to a trial.

Question: Let’s look closer at each stage. What are the pleadings?

Rustin: Each party files pleadings, and in these pleadings each party states its initial claims and defenses in writing.

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 and the legal basis for holding the defendant responsible for that harm.

The defendant is given a specific amount of time to file an answer to the complaint, which is explained on the summons page served with the complaint. The answer provides the defendant’s side of the dispute. The defendant may also file counter-claims against the plaintiff, alleging that the plaintiff has harmed the defendant and should be held liable for that harm.

The complaint and answer define the issues to be decided by the court.

Question: Now that the issues of the conflict are defined, is most of the case work done during discovery?

Rustin: Discovery is usually the longest part of the case. This is the stage where the parties ask each other for information about the facts and issues of the case. We gather information by requesting copies of documents and written questions known as “interrogatories.” In some cases, one side may ask the other to admit or deny statements of fact.

The most important way of gathering information is through depositions. Lawyers use depositions to delve into each witness’s view of the facts of the case. Witnesses are questioned under oath by each side’s attorney and their answers are recorded by a court report. Depositions also may be used at trial to show inconsistencies in a witness’s story or to question the witness’s credibility. The deposition may also be used during the trial in place of a witness if the witness is not able to attend the trial in person.

Also during this time, the parties typically will begin the motions phase. The parties use motions to narrow the issues for trial or to win the case based on the undisputed written evidence and testimony. Motions usually pertain to questions that be decided by referencing the law and the undisputed facts in the case (i.e., facts that don’t need to be decided by a judge or jury). However, motions sometimes seek clarification or resolution of procedural disputes between the parties. Some motions can be made during the pleadings stage or immediately afterward, but most come during or after the discovery stage.

In some instances, one side may make a motion for summary judgment. By doing this, they ask the court to dismiss part or all of a plaintiff’s case or a defendant’s defense and dispose of issues without trial. A motion for summary judgment is how the majority of civil cases are resolved outside of settlement and the threat of them often forces settlements.

Question: A judge or jury has considered the evidence presented and has reached a decision. What happens if either party is dissatisfied with the outcome of the case? What is their recourse?

Rustin: They have an appeals process available. During an appeal, a party asks a higher court to review the trial court proceeding. Each party presents its arguments through a brief submitted to the appeals court, along with a record of the evidence from the trial court.

The appellate court usually reviews a case for legal error only. Except under unusual circumstances, the appellate court will not review factual evidence or override a judge’s or jury’s findings of fact. The appellate court announces its decision in a document called an opinion. The appellate court will affirm the verdict if it finds that there was no error in the trial court proceeding.

However, if there was an error, the appellate court can reverse the verdict or order the trial court to conduct a new trial. An appeal can extend the litigation process by a year or more.

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