If you’re not able to reach an agreeable settlement out-of-court, your legal dispute is likely to reach the lawsuit phase. Here’s what you need to know as your case winds its way through the civil court system.
There are countless ways you could find yourself in court, either filing (or facing) a civil lawsuit. Maybe you’ve been injured in a car accident, or perhaps someone is claiming you owe them money. Regardless of how you got to civil court, chances are it’s foreign territory. Most people aren’t all that familiar with the different stages of a lawsuit (most legal disputes settle, after all) but it’s important to get a sense of what’s to come, so that you can best protect yourself and your rights. So, read on for a summary of the different steps to expect if your dispute makes its way to court.
The person who starts a lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person who has been sued in the lawsuit is called the defendant.
Complaint and Summons
A lawsuit begins when the plaintiff goes to court and files a complaint against the defendant, and the complaint along with a summons is served on the defendant.
The complaint explains why the plaintiff is suing the defendant and sets out the remedy (i.e. money damages, the return of certain property, or an injunction to stop the defendant from taking certain actions) the plaintiff is asking from the court.
The summons tells the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed and when a response must be made. The summons usually must be “served” on the defendant personally (or on someone authorized to receive “service of process”), but it may be mailed in some situations.
The defendant has a limited number of days (usually 20 to 30) to file an answer to the complaint. In the answer, the defendant will usually set out any defenses he or she plans to raise in response to the plaintiff’s claims. For example, if the defendant wishes to argue that the plaintiff’s suit is barred by the statute of limitations (meaning the suit wasn’t filed within the time period allowed by law) the answer will state that argument.
If the defendant doesn’t file an answer under the deadline set by the court’s procedural rules, the court will usually enter a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. This means the plaintiff wins automatically, without having to prove the defendant did anything wrong. But the defendant can also come before the court and ask that the default judgment be “set aside” so that the lawsuit can proceed on its merits.
If the plaintiff and defendant can’t reach a settlement, the lawsuit will proceed to trial, usually to be held before (and to be decided by) a jury, but sometimes before a single judge (this is called a “bench trial”)
After a lawsuit is filed, both parties can use the discovery process to gather information about the case. A variety of tools they can be used to investigate the facts and the other side’s
Interrogatories (written questions that must be answered under oath, sent from one party to another).
Deposition (an in-person, out-of-court session where a party or a witness answers questions, also under oath, and the entire proceedings are recorded in a transcript).
Requests for Production (usually this involves the parties asking for and exchanging documents that are relevant to the dispute).
While discovery is going on (and after it has concluded), the parties will typically go before the judge and ask for different kinds of help (ordering the production of certain evidence, or the subpoena of a crucial witness, for example) and different kinds of relief, including motions for summary judgment, which can basically put an end to the lawsuit.
If the plaintiff and defendant can’t reach a settlement, the lawsuit will proceed to trial, usually to be held before (and to be decided by) a jury, but sometimes before a single judge (this is called a “bench trial”).
The judgment is the court’s official announcement of the decision — who won and who lost. It also spells out what relief, if any, the plaintiff is given (usually that means a specific dollar amount).
Collection upon the Judgment is the Final Step, whether by attachment to assets, or wage garnishment as the most common means. Beware of the “judgment-proof” debtor, it may be best to settle.
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