What Happens in a Civil Case
A civil lawsuit involves disputes
between private individuals and/or organizations. The facts of the
dispute could involve a contract, a lease, a physical injury experienced
by an individual, a divorce, or many other issues. Nonetheless, all
disputes or unresolved conflicts between individuals and ultimately may
be solved through civil litigation. Generally, the result desired by the
person filing the lawsuit is to be compensated for damages. An
alternative result is to have the court order another person to begin or
stop some activity.
A civil lawsuit is started by the
filing of a complaint which details the facts of the situation as seen
by the plaintiff, the person desiring the court's assistance. A filing
fee is collected by the deputy clerk at the time of the filing of the
complaint. Once a complaint and summons have been filed with the court,
these documents must be delivered to the opposing party, known as the
defendant. The defendant then has twenty days to respond in writing to
The response that the defendant
files with the court is known as an answer. Again, the court clerk will
collect a set fee for the filing of the answer. The defendant may, at
some time, file a counterclaim as part the answer. The counterclaim sets
out the facts of any relief that the defendant feels he/she may be
entitled to from the plaintiff. The plaintiff then has ten days to file
an answer to the defendant's counterclaim.
If either party fails to comply with
the time limits, the other side may ask the court to rule in his/her
favor by default. Default is entered when a party does not appear or
file papers and the judge may enter a decision or judgment to be
collected as any other decision. It should be noted that most time
limits may be extended by agreement (stipulation) of the parties and
order by the court.
Upon completion of the filing of the
various documents as previously described, there is usually a period of
time for discovery. This is an intermediate period during which either
side may require the other to answer written questions
(interrogatories), give sworn testimony under oath (depositions),
provide copies of documents that relate to the case, request for
production of documents, and several other things that will assist the
lawyers in their presentations. The discovery process can be extremely
lengthy and complicated.
From the beginning of the dispute,
the parties may have been negotiating in hopes of finding a solution.
The negotiation may continue throughout the life span of the lawsuit.
However, if negotiations have so far been unsuccessful and all discovery
has been completed, either side may make various motions to the court.
These motions are simply requests that the court decides certain
preliminary matters prior to trial. An additional step at this point is
the pretrial hearing at which time the lawyers representing both sides
of the case, or the parties themselves if they have chosen not to be
represented by an attorney, meet with the judge to try and simplify the
factual and legal issues as much as possible prior to trial. Often, the
judge may be able to assist the parties to come to a mutually agreeable
decision at the pretrial hearing.
If all negotiations prior to and
during the pretrial hearing have been unsuccessful, the matter will then
go before the court in a formal trial. The conduct of the a trial is
discussed more thoroughly in Anatomy of a Trial.