Unlike criminal cases where a defendant is brought to court by the state, a civil lawsuit is basically a dispute between two people. Civil lawsuits are complex and may deal with a breach of contract, a family law dispute, or a wrongdoing called a “tort.” The purpose of a civil lawsuit is for a person who has suffered harm (the plaintiff) to seek some kind of restitution from the alleged wrongdoer (the defendant).
First Steps: Complaints, Answers, and Motions
One of the most important initial steps in filing a civil lawsuit is to hire an attorney who can assist you in following the complex steps of civil litigation correctly. In New York, for example, the statute of limitations for some civil cases can be as little as two years, so in a court case in which a plaintiff suffered physical harm, for instance, hiring an experienced personal injury attorney should be done relatively soon in the process.
The plaintiff will file a “complaint,” a document explaining the reasons for the lawsuit and asking for restitution in the form of damages. The court then delivers a summons to the defendant including the lawsuit and a copy of the complaint. This information will allow the defendant to “answer” or fairly respond to each of the reasons for the lawsuit. After those documents are filed, the attorneys for either side may file a “motion.”
A motion is essentially a request for the court to take action. If both sides agree the charges are true, the plaintiff can ask for a motion of summary judgment asking that the case be decided in favor of the plaintiff. If the defendant does not agree with the charges, they may file a motion to dismiss, arguing the complaint is baseless and the defendant has done nothing wrong. If the judge grants either motion, the case is over. There may be cross-claims and counterclaims raised at this early stage.
Next Steps: Discovery and Pretrial Motions
If the case proceeds, both sides gather evidence and conduct depositions in a period called “discovery.” Unlike in the movies, a trial does not involve a sneak attack, but instead, both sides exchange information. During discovery, attorneys may confer with the judge and discuss major moves such as settlements or motions to bar evidence and witnesses or to restrict lines of argumentation. The discovery period is a key time for a professional personal injury lawyer to offer insights about strategy and tactics to help make crucial decisions.
Going to Trial
A civil trial may take place before a judge or may include a jury. In a civil trial, the wronged party (the plaintiff) speaks first before the defendant and has the burden of proof. Although in a criminal trial, a prosecutor must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in a civil trial, the plaintiff must only demonstrate that a “preponderance of the evidence” justifies their claim, meaning that most of the evidence would prove to a reasonable person that the plaintiff’s case was stronger. Each side may question any witnesses brought to testify.
After final closing arguments have been given, the jury deliberates and may return a verdict. In some states like New York, the verdict does not have to be unanimous; in other states, it does. If the jury is “hung,” or unable to decide a verdict, the judge may declare a mistrial. If the jury renders a verdict, the losing side may appeal the decision, and the case will be evaluated.
Civil litigation is a complex process.