A lawsuit is one of many tools individuals and businesses can use to resolve disputes. There are a multitude of rules governing lawsuits and how they progress. Attorneys learn these rules and use them to help their clients every day. The following article provides a broad overview of the different stages of a lawsuit. Every case is different and we advise you to always seek the assistance of an attorney if you have any questions.
A lawsuit typically begins with a Complaint and a Summons. It is up to the Plaintiff to file the Complaint and Summons with the Court and serve the Defendant with the Complaint and Summons. If the Plaintiff fails to properly serve the Defendant, the lawsuit does not begin.
The Plaintiff‘s Complaint sets down the factual and legal bases (or allegations) for the lawsuit. For example, a Complaint for breach of contract might allege that the Plaintiff and Defendant entered into a contract and the Defendant breached that contract by not performing as promised. A lawsuit can have more than one cause of action or legal claim. Each Complaint is different and the allegations will depend on the facts of the case.
A Summons is a notice to the Defendant. The Summons will tell the Defendant how and when to file an Answer to the Complaint. Filing an Answer requires the Defendant to analyze the allegations in the Complaint and respond to each allegation. In some cases, a Defendant may also be able to file a Motion asking the Court to dismiss the Complaint without even filing an Answer.
Time is an extremely important consideration for both the Plaintiff and the Defendant. Every cause of action (or claim) must be brought within the statutory limitations period – the period set forth by state or federal law. The limitations period will vary for different types of claims. If a Plaintiff fails to bring a claim within the statutory period, the Plaintiff’s claim may be barred.
A Defendant must file an Answer or Motion in response to the Complaint within the time provided in the Summons. Failure to do so could result in the Court entering a judgment in favor of the Plaintiff.
Next, a lawsuit will typically enter into the Discovery phase. The Plaintiff and Defendant (collectively, the “Parties”) use Discovery to gather facts from each other and third parties related to the lawsuit.
Discovery can be written or oral. The Parties may ask each other written questions (Interrogatories) or request production of particular kinds of documents. The Parties can ask each other to admit or deny specific facts in writing (Admissions) and also interview each other under oath before a court reporter (Deposition).
In addition, the Parties may seek information from third parties (individuals, businesses or other entities not involved in the lawsuit). Parties can obtain third party information through written requests for documents or Depositions.
A Motion is a request for the Court to do something related to the lawsuit. Motions can be filed at practically any time during a lawsuit, but some of the most important Motions are typically filed after the discovery phase is completed. At this time, Parties often file Motions for Summary Judgment.
A Motion for Summary Judgment is a Party’s request for the Judge to enter a judgment in that Party’s favor without a trial. Either a Plaintiff or a Defendant can file a Motion for Summary Judgment. On a Motion for Summary Judgment, the moving Party (i.e., the Party bringing the Motion) must prove that there are no disputes regarding the material facts of the case and that the moving Party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
If a Party wins their Summary Judgment Motion, that could end the case. If that Party loses, the case will proceed to trial. Thus, Summary Judgment Motions are a very important aspect of a lawsuit.
The Trial phase is probably the part of a lawsuit most familiar to non-lawyers. During the Trial, the Parties (usually through their attorneys) present evidence to the finder of fact (either a judge or a jury) through witnesses and documents.
A trial can be either before a Jury or before a judge (“Bench Trial”). Not every case will automatically go to a Jury. Deciding whether to have a Jury or Bench Trial is very important and is often dependent on documents filed during the Pleadings phase. Thus, it is important for a Party to decide at the outset whether it wants a Jury or Bench Trial.
In a Jury Trial, after the presentation of evidence is concluded, the Judge will instruct the jury on the applicable law. The Jury then deliberates by themselves to reach a verdict. Once a verdict is reached, the Jury reports back to the Judge. Typically, the Judge will enter a Judgment in accordance with the Jury’s verdict. In a Bench Trial, the Judge decides the facts and issues a Judgment.
A lawsuit is not necessarily over after a Judgment is entered. The losing Party may file an Appeal to the Appellate Court. Issues on appeal will vary greatly from case to case. A Party might appeal by arguing that the lower Court made an error in interpreting the law, or that the Judge or Jury made an error in finding a fact. Both Parties are allowed to bring their arguments to the Appellate Court. The Appellate Court will then decide to either (1) affirm the Judgment; (2) reverse the Judgment; or (3) remand the lawsuit back to trial court for additional proceedings.
Enforcing a Judgment
Even after a Judgment is entered, the lawsuit might not be over. The winning Party might have to take additional steps to enforce a Judgment. For example, if the Plaintiff wins a monetary award, the Plaintiff may need to garnish (or collect) that money from the Defendant’s employer or bank account. Or the Plaintiff might need to seize the Defendant’s property and sell it in order to collect the money owed. Any action to enforce a Judgment will typically require going back to Court.