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 complaint.
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.