The Course of a Civil Lawsuit


A civil lawsuit is a process by which an individual or corporation called the plaintiff brings another party, referred to as the defendant, to court.  Generally in a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff asks a court to order the defendant either to pay money damages or perform a specific action.  Initially, the plaintiff files a complaint indicating that the plaintiff is asking for damages or relief from a specific defendant.  The complaint and all other documents filed with the court are referred to as pleadings.  Subsequently, the clerk of the court issues a summons to the defendant with a notice of the lawsuit and a copy of the complaint.

The defendant files an answer addressing the facts and the legal claims in the complaint.  Thereafter, the parties appear before the assigned judge.  The parties exchange information and documents related to the claim in the complaint and defenses asserted in the answer, during discovery which is the next phase.  Depositions also may be conducted during discovery.  During discovery, the parties may present their arguments for trial and the basis for the arguments to the judge through pre-trial conferences.  After the pre-trial conferences, the matter will be ready to go to trial.  At this phase, the parties may reach a settlement and end the case.  If a settlement is not reached, the matter goes to trial.

At the trial, the plaintiff presents evidence to either a judge in a bench trial or a group of citizens in a jury trial.  Thereafter, the defendant may present the defense side of the case.  However, the plaintiff has the burden of proving his/her case by a preponderance of the evidence.  Finally, the jury or judge rules either for or against the plaintiff.  If the judge or jury finds for the plaintiff, the court will award damages or order the defendant perform a specific act.  This order is a judgment in favor of the plaintiff concluding the trial process.

Thereafter, the defendant or plaintiff may file an appeal and the case goes to an appellate court.  The appellate court may dismiss the appeal, or reverse the order, or send it back to the trial court with instructions to correct legal errors.  If the defendant fails to obey the judgment, s/he is guilty of contempt of court bringing the danger of prosecution and other penalties.