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Posted by Montgomery Law on 10/30/2019

What Exactly Is a Lawsuit?

What Exactly Is a Lawsuit?

It’s time to put the legalese aside and get to basics. What exactly is a lawsuit?

In its simplest terms, a lawsuit is a legal proceeding by which one party asks the court to resolve a pending dispute. The point of a lawsuit is to make the victim "whole" again, and damages are usually awarded in the form of monetary compensation.

Say you get into an argument with someone. Maybe it’s over a property line issue with a neighbor, or perhaps someone rear-ended your vehicle. How do you resolve it?

You might be able to hash it out without involving anyone else. Unfortunately, people don’t always see eye to eye. Even if both of you do come to an agreement, what do you do if the other party doesn’t hold up their end of the deal?

As stated above, a lawsuit is a way to settle a legal dispute. Lawsuits usually involve one party suing another party, although there are sometimes many parties to a lawsuit. A party can be an individual, a business, an organization, or even a government agency. The plaintiff is the party that files the lawsuit (the one who feels that they were wronged), while the defendant is the party that must respond to the lawsuit.

Lawsuits are handled in civil court (as opposed to criminal court) and are typically used by those who’ve been wronged to seek monetary compensation for the damages they’ve suffered as a result of the defendant’s actions or negligence. However, some lawsuits simply seek to stop (enjoin) someone from doing something via an injunction.

Lawsuits may be based on contract violations or because someone caused another party harm due to their negligence. If a business fails to deliver goods as promised under contract, then it may face a lawsuit from the other party. If someone is injured in a car accident due to another driver’s negligence, then the at-fault driver may face a negligence-based personal injury lawsuit.

The process of determining the outcome of a lawsuit is called litigation, and all parties to a lawsuit are referred to as litigants. There are many rules that must be followed when pursuing a civil lawsuit—from when a case may be filed to how and when each step of the litigation process occurs.

Steps in a Lawsuit

The first step in any lawsuit is gathering facts and researching the law, but before you make any decisions about your case, it’s important to discuss everything with an experienced personal injury lawyer. Each state has its own set of rules over how/when lawsuits can be filed—as well as who has standing to pursue such a claim—and it’s important to understand how these apply to your case early on.

Once you and your attorney have all the facts, you’ll likely attempt to resolve the claim (settle) out of court. If you’re unable to come to a settlement agreement, you or your attorney will file a legal document—called a complaint—with the court. The complaint will list out the facts and allegations of the case, the reasons why the plaintiff believes that the defendant(s) are responsible, and what he or she wants the court to do. Once the lawsuit is filed with the court, the defendant will need to be notified and provided a copy of the complaint as well. Depending on the type of lawsuit and where the case is filed, this may be done by mail or via a process server.

The defendant then has a set period of time to respond with their own legal document, known as an answer. In an answer, the defendant will respond to the claims made by the plaintiff and may even make claims of their own (a counter-claim). For example, if the plaintiff claimed that the defendant caused the car accident, the defendant may argue that it was the plaintiff’s own bad driving that led to the wreck. The answer will also be filed with the court and provided to the plaintiff.

In some cases, the plaintiff may then file a response to the answer, known as a reply. Either the plaintiff or the defendant may change (amend) their complaint or answer. They may also ask the judge to dismiss parts of the complaint or answer. This is known as the pleading process. Once this is complete, then the lawsuit moves forward to discovery.

Discovery is a process where each party tries to get as much information as possible to support their argument. Discovery can take a long time, as lawyers from both sides will ask for a lot of information and argue back and forth over what they have turn over to the other side. The goal of discovery is to learn as much as you can so that you can earnestly attempt to settle the case out of court, or at least have a full understanding of the facts before trial.

During discovery, the lawyers for both sides will file a number of motions, which are legal procedures that ask the judge to do something. This is all part of the pretrial process. A motion may ask the judge to keep certain evidence out of trial, to throw out part of the case, or to force one side to answer questions in discovery.

If the case is still unable to be settled at this point, the next step is to argue your case in front of a judge or jury. The outcome of any trial is inherently uncertain, but it’s important to remember that a case can still be settled during the trial phase.

If the Case Does Go to Trial

Each state and local court has its own rules and procedures when it comes to trial. If the case is set to go before a judge, it is called a bench trial. If it’s a jury trial, then both parties help to select the jury.

To start the trial, the plaintiff will give an opening statement. This is not an argument, but an outline of what is to come in the case. The defendant will then give an opening statement. After opening statements, the plaintiff will present its evidence. This may include documents, videos, photographs, witness testimony, and other types of information. After the plaintiff presents its evidence, then the defendant has the chance to present its evidence. When the defendant is done, the plaintiff has one last chance to present additional evidence (known as rebuttal evidence).

Witnesses are “called to the stand,” asked to take an oath, and sit beside the judge in a small area known as the witness stand. The party that called the witness will ask him or her questions. Then the other party will have an opportunity to ask the same witness questions. This is known as cross-examination.

Finally, each side will make a closing argument, starting with the plaintiff and ending with the defendant. The closing argument will involve a summary of what the judge or jury heard, plus an argument about why their side is right. If there is a jury, the judge will then give the jury instructions about the laws that apply in the case.

From there, the jury will discuss the case (deliberate) in private until they reach a decision. Unlike a criminal case, jurors do not need to be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, plaintiffs only need to prove their case “by a preponderance of the evidence” (i.e., more likely than not). Additionally, many civil courts do not require jurors to be unanimous in their decision. Most states only require a majority verdict.

Although the civil litigation process can be complex, convoluted, and confusing, we hope this article helps begin to explain how a lawsuit works in relatively simple terms. More importantly, we hope we’ve piqued your interest to continue to learn more about America’s civil justice system.

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