Civil attorneys must follow the rules of civil procedure in prosecuting or defending civil lawsuits in a court of law. The purpose of these rules is to produce an outcome through a process that is hopefully speedy, efficient, and fair. Realistically, however, it is unlikely that a civil lawsuit would be brought to completion quickly. Rather they tend to proceed slowly, sometimes taking years to complete for various reasons.
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply to civil lawsuits in federal courts, and state rules of civil procedure apply to civil lawsuits in state courts. Each state has its rules of civil procedure, but they tend to be very similar.
How Does a Civil Lawsuit Begin?
A civil lawsuit begins when a person who has suffered some kind of legal wrong files a complaint seeking some kind of remedy from the defendant, the person who the plaintiff says is legally responsible for the wrong they have suffered.
According to the rules of civil procedure, the plaintiff must file a sufficient complaint to state a legal claim. If a plaintiff alleges facts that are insufficient to state a legal claim, the defendant can file a motion to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim.
During a lawsuit, a plaintiff can amend or change their complaint. A plaintiff might amend a complaint to state a new legal theory that entitles them to a remedy. A defendant can also amend their answer or response to the complaint. A defendant might amend an answer to allege a counterclaim, i.e., a set of facts that entitle the defendant to claim a remedy from the plaintiff.
Or a defendant might amend their complaint because they have discovered facts that could serve as a defense to the plaintiff’s claim. This process of pleading can continue in the initial stages of a lawsuit.
What Is the Discovery Process in Civil Cases?
Once a plaintiff has filed a complaint and the defendant has answered it, the parties begin identifying and obtaining the evidence they might use at the trial to prove their respective cases.
This process of seeking and obtaining evidence is known as “discovery.” There are several processes that both parties can use to identify and obtain evidence that might help them in the lawsuit. They are as follows:
- Interrogatories: Interrogatories are written questions addressed to one of the parties to a lawsuit. The party receiving interrogatories from another party is legally obligated to answer them in writing within a certain period, often 30 days after receiving them. If, for some reason, the party who must answer cannot complete their answers within the specified time, they would ask the other party for an extension. If the other party does not grant the extension, the party would have to go to court to seek an extension of time to answer.
- The parties can ask any questions relevant to the case’s issues. For example, one may ask the other party to identify all the evidence they intend to rely on at trial to support their claims or to defend them, as the case may be.
- The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure limit each party to 25 interrogatories to prevent abuse. Some states limit the number of interrogatories as well;
- Requests for Production of Documents and Things: A request for the production of documents and things is what its title implies. It is a request from one party to a lawsuit to another party asking them to produce a document they have that is relevant to the issues in the case.
- Or, the object that needs to be produced might be relevant to the issues. Again, the documents or object must be produced before a stated deadline. The parties might want to work cooperatively to arrange a time and place for production, especially if the thing to be produced is an object;
- Depositions: In a deposition, one party requires a person to appear in person and answer the questions of the party’s attorney under oath, meaning under penalty of perjury. Usually, a party’s attorney sends a notice of the time and place of the deposition to the other party to the lawsuit. If the attorney wants the person to bring documents they may have to the deposition, and the attorney may require the party to bring documents relevant to the issues in the lawsuit.
- Or, if the person who is to be questioned is not a party to the lawsuit, then the attorney would send a subpoena to the person they want to question. A subpoena is an official court document that compels a person to attend a deposition. If the attorney wants the person to bring documents with them, they will issue a subpoena duces tecum, which is a subpoena that requires the person to bring documents when they come to the deposition.
- Generally, if the person who is to answer the questions cannot appear at the time required by the notice or the subpoena, the person, or their attorney, would contact the attorney who noticed the deposition or issued the subpoena and make an arrangement to hold the deposition at a different time;
- At the deposition, all of the attorneys who represent parties to the lawsuit have a right to ask questions of the person. Of course, the questions must be relevant to the issues in the lawsuit;
- Depositions with Production of Documents: As noted above, if the attorney wants the person to be questioned to bring documents to the deposition, they include a request for the production of documents with the notice of the deposition Or, if the person is to be questioned is not a party, the attorney would issue a subpoena duces tecum;
- Requests for Admissions: As the parties gather and assess the evidence in the case, they may find that some facts can be admitted because the evidence supports the existence of these facts, and there is no point in contesting them.
- If an attorney believes that certain facts can be admitted, they will request admission to the other attorney asking them to admit that certain facts are true. In this way, the parties narrow the issues that must be addressed at a trial. This is a way to save time and money.
Can a Case Be Settled Without a Trial?
Generally speaking, the parties work throughout a lawsuit to see if they can reach a mutually agreeable settlement before the case comes to trial. Each party assesses and analyzes the evidence revealed through the discovery process to see whether or not it favors their case. They discuss the possibility of settlement. In addition, a court is likely to hold a settlement conference to get the parties to agree.
A settlement is an agreement in which the defendant agrees to pay the plaintiff money or to provide some other remedy in exchange for the plaintiff dismissing the case “with prejudice,” meaning that the plaintiff cannot sue the defendant ever again over the same matter.
What Happens at a Trial?
If the case has not been settled, it will go to trial. A trial can involve a jury as the entity that decides who wins. Or, the parties can choose to have a judge serve as the decision-maker. In either case, the parties present their evidence, and the fact-finder, i.e., the jury or the judge, decides which party should prevail, the plaintiff or the defendant. If the plaintiff is the victor, the jury decides on compensation the defendant should pay the plaintiff.
After the judge or the jury has reached a verdict, a party who is dissatisfied with the outcome can “appeal” to a higher court, ask for a retrial, or ask the trial judge to overturn the jury’s verdict.
Can I File an Appeal?
To appeal means having a higher court look at the trial to ensure that everything that happened was legal and no mistakes were made. One party may feel that the jury’s verdict was wrong, but they would not file an appeal unless they can show that some kind of legally significant error was made in the trial. Winning an appeal is very unlikely. Few appeals are successful, and few verdicts are overturned on appeal.
Usually, a party has the right to appeal, but sometimes the higher courts have the choice of whether or not to allow an appeal. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court is free to choose the cases it takes, and because of limited time, it only takes those cases that it considers important for the law and society. After the appeals decision is made, the case is usually over with finality.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for a Civil Case?
If you have a significant complaint against another person or entity, you want to consult a civil attorney. Your attorney can analyze the facts of your case and help you decide whether it is worth filing a lawsuit. If you decide to proceed with a lawsuit, your attorney represents you at all stages of the case, from preparing the complaint to conducting discovery and negotiating a settlement. Your attorney will represent you in a trial if a settlement is impossible.
Or, if you have been sued and must defend yourself, you also want to consult a civil litigation attorney to identify your best strategy.