When you sue someone for damages, such as in an assault or defamation suit, you are engaging in a civil court action. The legal justice system is divided into two main courts: criminal and civil. Criminal courts try defendants for crimes against the state (hence, "The People" of a given state are the named plaintiffs), while civil courts try cases alleging wrongs by one party against another. Also, criminal convictions result in fines, incarceration, public service, or other such sentences, while civil cases determine whether the defendant is financially liable for the plaintiff's injuries. FindLaw's section on Civil Court Cases covers the stages of a civil case, provides a practical guide to lawsuits, and offers other information and resources related to civil court cases.
Overview of the Stages of a Civil Case
There are multiple stages to the typical civil case. The first step is to file the initial court papers, which are called "pleadings." The first document that usually filed to start a civil case is the Complaint, which is also sometimes referred to as the Petition. Among other things, the Complaint outlines the plaintiff's case against the defendant by stating the plaintiff's legal claims against the defendant and the facts that give rise to those claims. The Complaint also sets forth what the plaintiff is seeks the court to order the defendant to do, such as pay money damages or stop engaging in a certain action.
Once the initial papers are filed and the defendant has answered the Complaint, there is a period of time for discovery, which allows each side to obtain relevant facts and documents from the other side. There are three basic forms of discovery: written discovery, document production, and depositions. Written discovery is made up of interrogatories and requests for admission. Interrogatories are questions that require the other side to present his or her version of the facts as they relate to the case while requests for admissions simply ask the other side to admit or deny certain facts. There are usually limits to the number of interrogatories and requests for admissions each side can present to the other side. A request for document production allows each side to ask the other side for documents that relate to the case. Finally, depositions allow each side to request sworn statements from people that are related to the case.
Before the trial starts, each side has the opportunity to file pretrial motions, which ask the judge to rule on a particular matter. A motion to dismiss may be filed after the discovery period and if it's granted, the case can end there. If a motion to dismiss is not filed or is not granted, you may engage in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to see if the case can be settled out of court. ADR allows the plaintiff, defendant, and their lawyers to try and negotiate a settlement with a neutral third party serving as the mediator or arbitrator.
If ADR is unsuccessful and no settlement can be reached, the case heads to trial. Once each side presents its case, the jury will render a verdict either in the plaintiff's favor or the defendant's favor. If the winning side is awarded with money damages, it may need to take additional steps to actually collect the judgment. The losing side has the opportunity to appeal the decision if it wishes to do so.
Hiring an Attorney
There are several rules and procedures when it comes to civil court cases. For this reason, it's a good idea to consult with a local litigation attorney if you're thinking about filing a lawsuit against another person or company, or if a lawsuit has been filed against you.