The Stages of Civil Litigation

by : Gerard Simington

Getting involved in a lawsuit can be a very stressful situation, regardless of which side you are on. To limit the stress, it often helps to understand the process and stages of litigation.

The Stages of Civil Litigation

What is civil litigation? Civil litigation is a lawsuit whereby a party seeks damages against another party. The damages can come in the form of money or the modification of some type of conduct. For instance, one can sue for breach of contract if another party fails to live up to the terms of a written agreement. One can also sue for a restraining order to bar a competitor from using various business property such as intellectual property rights. Importantly, civil litigation is not a criminal matter, to wit, the party that loses the case does not go to jail.

The first stage of civil litigation is the pleading stage. The pleading stage simply refers to the filing of the complaint against the party that is the defendant. The defendant then has the right to contest certain elements of that complaint. The defendant can object on the grounds that the complaint does not state a cause of action against them or frivolous matters are included in the language of the complaint, to name a few arguments. At this point, the court will either find a complaint to be with or without merit. If the Court throws out the plaintiff's complaint, the plaintiff is usually allowed to amend the language and refile it.

The next stage of civil litigation is discovery. Discovery is simply the process of learning what evidence each side has regarding the dispute. Typically a party can ask to see any supporting documents the other side has and ask them questions. Questions can be asked in written form through a legal document known as interrogatories. Questions can also be asked orally by the party's legal counsel in a process known as a deposition. Other methods of discovery also include request for admissions, special interrogatories and various other methods specific to your state. Yep, all the rules are set forth by state in most cases.

Once discovery comes to a close, the defendant will often file something known as a motion for summary judgment. A summary judgment motion is simply an argument by the defendant that the evidence provided by the plaintiff in the case does not support a claim against the defendant. In moving for summary judgment, the court considers the law on the books and the evidence provided by the plaintiff. It views the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff before making the decision. If the court finds in favor of the defendant, the lawsuit is over. At this point, the plaintiff can either abandon the lawsuit or file an appeal to have a higher court review the matter.

Assuming the plaintiff survives a motion for summary judgment, the next technical step of a lawsuit is to actually go to trial. Before that happens, however, the parties are usually sent to an arbitration hearing in which a mediator tries to cut a deal between the parties. This process is also known as a settlement conference. If they settlement cannot be reached, the court will then set the matter for trial and off you go.

At the end of the day, the average civil lawsuit will take a while to get from filing of the complaint to trial. The exact time is dependent upon the state you live in and how busy the courts are. Criminal matters tend to take precedent over civil matters, so you can often be waiting awhile. In fact, it can often take a year or more before a civil matter goes to trial.