“You've been served”
Have you received “papers” in the mail telling you you only have a certain number of days to respond?
If the answer is yes, then you have been effectively and possibly involuntarily thrust into the world of civil litigation.
Emotional or physical injury, contract disputes, real estate matters and other non-criminal legal disputes are usually the beginnings of a civil lawsuit. The person suing (plaintiff) is typically seeking financial compensation from the person accused of the harm or breach (defendant). If that person if found guilty; they can be ordered by the court to pay damages. Damages typically sought include, medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, modification of actions and attorney fees.
Proving the facts in a civil suit only requires a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that only enough evidence to convince a Judge or jury has to be provided to show that the person being sued (defendant) is responsible for the acts in question and that the defendant’s actions resulted in damages to the person bringing the lawsuit (plaintiff).
Civil litigation is different from a criminal lawsuit in that you cannot go to jail if found civilly guilty of the alleged actions.
The Stages of Civil Litigation
Pleadings This stage begins when one person files a complaint against another person. The person receiving the complaint can contest one or more of the allegations in the complaint. They can also simply state that the complaint does not state a cause of action(without merit) or that it is frivolous and brought only to harass. If the Court finds the complaint without merit, it will be thrown out, although the person bringing the suit will be allowed to amend and re-file if they choose to do so.
Discovery The process of accessing information and evidence that may assist the party in winning their lawsuit. It is where you learn what information the other party knows about the allegations. The discovery stage generally consists of depositions, written discovery, document discovery and electronic discovery.
- Depositions Questions asked of a party or witness in oral format and recorded by a court reporter.
- Written Discovery Questions asked of the other party in written form, usually interrogatories and requests for admissions.
- Document Discovery Requesting of the other party documents and papers that may be somehow related to the allegations in the lawsuit.
- Electronic Discovery Requesting materials stored on computers or other digital technology, including e-mails.
Summary Judgment The defendant may believe, after the discovery stage is complete, that there is not enough evidence to support the allegations in the complaint and may file a motion for summary judgment. The court must consider only the current law and the evidence provided by the person starting the lawsuit, but views the evidence in the plaintiffs favor. If the court grants summary judgment, the lawsuit is over. Now, the person bringing the suit can forget it and go on with life or bring an appeal to have a higher court review the matter.
Trial If the person bringing the lawsuit wins the summary judgment motion, the next step in the lawsuit is trial. However, many courts require that the parties mediate or arbitrate the issues in an attempt to get the parties to settle their differences without the court’s interference. IF no settlement is reached, the matter will be set for trial by the court.