There may come a time when you are involved in a lawsuit – either you need to sue someone, or someone is suing you, and you don’t know what to expect. Of course, the first thing that you should do is contact an attorney to review your case, because an attorney will understand all of the legal aspects of the case and be able to advise you the best way to proceed. In the meantime, there is some basic information about litigation cases that may be helpful for you to know.
The following provides a general overview of the stages of a litigation case, so that in the event that you have to participate in one, you will know what to expect. The overview is broken down into three sections relating to the trial. Keep in mind that there can be a settlement reached at any time during this process.
Prior to Trial
A litigation case begins when one party, the plaintiff, files a complaint against the defendant with the court. In the complaint, the plaintiff details what he or she claims the defendant did, or failed to do, that caused them harm, and the legal grounds that support their claim. The defendant is served with an official copy of the complaint, and depending on the court which the case was filed in, has a specific amount of time to file an answer. In the answer, the defendant responds to the complaint with their side of the dispute. At this time, the defendant can also file a counter-suit against the plaintiff, to which the plaintiff can file a reply. Once the complaint, answer, and any reply have been submitted to the court, the case is ready to be prepared for trial.
The first, and often longest, part of trial preparation is called “Discovery.” During this stage, both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s litigation attorneys gather information that is relevant to the case. They may each request information from the other party (officially, through the court), or from third parties who may have pertinent information to support the claims of the plaintiff, or the defense of the defendant. It is during discovery that investigations are conducted, witnesses are interviewed or deposed, and the applicable points of the law are researched.
At any time during the case, either side may request the court to rule or act on certain things. They do this by filing motions. Motions may be used for such actions as:
- to ask for clarification or a ruling regarding procedural disputes between the parties
- to ask that the plaintiff’s claim or the defendant’s defense be dismissed, in part or entirely
- to request that the other party produce documents
- to exclude evidence from being presented at trial
A trial date is set by the court, based on court scheduling and how long the discovery stage is expected to take.
During the Trial
The trial allows the plaintiff and the defendant to present the evidence that supports their respective cases to the judge and jury (if it is a jury trial).
Just prior to the beginning of the trial, attorneys for both sides of the case present the judge with a “brief.” This is a document that outlines the evidence that will be presented during the trial that proves why their side of the case should prevail.
If the case will be decided by a jury, then both sides question potential jurors in a process called “voir dire,” and a jury is selected. Once the jury is in place, both sides present their opening statements to the court. Evidence is then presented by both sides. This is done by questioning witnesses and entering documents and other evidence as exhibits. Both sides have the opportunity to cross-examine the other side’s witnesses.
After both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s attorneys have presented all of their evidence to the court, they conclude with their closing arguments, and the case goes to the jury (or judge) for a verdict.
Either side may make a motion for “judgement notwithstanding the verdict” at the conclusion of the trial. This motion says that no reasonable jury could have reached the decision that the jury in this case did. In other words, the jury in this case did not follow the court’s instructions and made their decision based on insufficient evidence. If the motion is granted, the verdict is disregarded and the court enters a different decision.
After the Trial
If either party feels that there was a legal error made during the trial, they may file an appeal asking a higher court to review the trial court proceedings. Evidence from the previous trial, as well as briefs from each side, are submitted to the deciding appellate court, and the court issues a decision (called an opinion). If the appellate court’s opinion finds no legal errors in the trial court’s proceedings, the verdict is upheld. If the appellate court determines that there was, in fact, an error, then the verdict can be reversed or a new trial ordered.
The appeal process can extend the litigation of the case significantly.
Finding an Attorney to Help with Your Litigation
As you can see the litigation process is long and often complicated. Knowing the process is an important element, but it is important that you have experienced representation for your case. With a seasoned and successful attorney, you have the best chance of a beneficial outcome. At Ross Feller Casey, we have the attorneys and resources to support you through the litigation process.
If you are involved in a lawsuit, contact us today for your free case evaluation.