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How does a lawsuit work?

Often clients have many questions about how the legal process works. The following chronology explains how a lawsuit may typically work, although many factors may affect this timeline. Keep in mind that the process often varies from case to case depending on the number of parties, factual issues, legal issues and the overall complexity of the matter.

Initial Court Papers

The Plaintiff and Defendant usually exchange formal legal papers setting out each side’s legal claims, defenses and claims against any third party. An initial exchange of these documents will narrow and define the issues and parties in dispute. The most common papers at this stage include the Complaint, the Answer, Pre-Answer Motions, and Cross-Complaints.

Discovery

After the initial court papers are exchanged and all motions are resolved, the Plaintiff and Defendant engage in a process called discovery. Each side presents all its evidence either in support or opposition to the other party’s claims. The most common forms of discovery include the exchange of documents (including email and electronic information), asking and answering written questions (called “interrogatories”), and conducting depositions, which are sworn statements transcribed by a court reporter. The information obtained in discovery helps each side prepare for trial, discover the strengths and weaknesses of their respective cases, and facilitate a settlement, if possible.

Pre-Trial Motions

At any time before the lawsuit goes to trial, the parties may file various motions in court to try to dispose of the case, or some parts of it, by arguing that it is not possible for the other side to win. The most common pre-trial motion is known as summary judgment or summary adjudication. Summary judgment motions are made when one side feels that there are no real factual disputes and that the court only needs to decide legal questions. Since the court is in the best position to evaluate legal questions (versus factual issues to be decided by a jury), summary judgment is a method to dispose of cases without using the court’s scarce resources.

Settlement

At any time during the lawsuit (including before and during trial), the parties may reach an agreement to resolve or settle the case. Settlement may result from formal processes, such as mediation and arbitration, in which third parties assist the parties in coming to an agreement. In certain types of cases, parties are required by law to engage in these formal processes to try to resolve the case. Increasingly many courts will order the parties to participate in settlement processes (e.g. mediation, early settlement conference, neutral evaluation) to see if a settlement can be reached long before the case heads to trial. Settlement may also result from communications between the attorneys and the parties. Once the case settles, the lawsuit is over and the court (typically) is no longer involved.

Trial

If the parties cannot settle and pre-trial motions do not dispose of the case, the case will go to trial. Usually, either side can decide whether they want a jury to decide the case. If neither side requests a jury, a judge will decide the outcome. At trial, each side has the opportunity to present their arguments and evidence to the judge or jury. The judge or jury then decides which side prevails. If the Plaintiff wins and is seeking compensation in the form of money, the judge or jury decides the amount. The decision is called a “Judgment.”

Appeal

Either or both parties can appeal the judge or jury decision to a higher court. The appellate court rules limit the ability to appeal routine decisions by the trial judge (even if unfavorable to your side) during the course of the lawsuit. Usually an appeal occurs after the trial is completed or at a point in which the trial court has made a ruling which disposes of the case. The process for bringing appeals is very different from the process described above.

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