Written by Avvo Staff

Stages of a civil court case

A start-to-finish guide to what happens in a civil case

Most civil cases get resolved before they go to trial. However, when a matter does go to civil court, it takes time to get a resolution. Civil actions begin with the filing of a complaint, but can last for years if the verdict or ruling is appealed. Knowing what to expect can help remove some of the uncertainty.

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What happens in civil court?

In a civil case, a person or private organization sues another party. The two parties are the plaintiff (the party bringing the case) and the defendant (the party defending against the case). The plaintiff either seeks payment and/or damages, or asks the court to force the defendant to fulfill some duty.

These cases have several differences from criminal cases. The main one to know is that a criminal case is brought by a state or federal government against someone accused of breaking the law. By contrast, a civil case arises when the plaintiff accuses a person or organization of failing to fulfill a legal duty.

For example, if small business owner's supplier breaches a contract, it's a civil matter. Likewise, if a doctor negligently harms a patient, the ensuing malpractice suit happens in civil court.

The pleading stage: the complaint and court motions

The document that sets civil cases in motion is called a complaint or a petition. This paper sets forth the facts of the case, explains why the court has jurisdiction, and details what the plaintiffs seek as relief for their grievance (e.g. money or an injunction).

Defendants then receive a summons informing them of the case against them and the date they must be in court. Typically, the defendant has 30 days to answer the plaintiff's allegations. Without a timely answer, the defendant risks a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor.

At this point, the defendant may choose to respond with a motion to dismiss. This motion asks a judge to throw the case out based on lack of jurisdiction or the plaintiff's failure to state a valid legal claim, for example. Once the defendant has responded, either party may move for summary judgment.

A motion for summary judgment asks the judge to make a ruling on the facts as stated in the pleadings because the parties agree on them. Without any material dispute over the facts, a trial isn't necessary, and the judge may issue a summary judgment.

The pretrial stage: discovery and fact-finding

Discovery, in a civil case, is the process where both parties exchange the evidence and information they have before trial. Discovery takes two forms—interrogatories and depositions.

Interrogatories are written questions posed by the plaintiff to the defendant. Defendants must answer these questions in full and in writing, and are under oath while doing so.

Depositions are sworn statements given by a witness in response to questions posed by the other party's attorneys. A court reporter makes a transcript of all deposition testimony. Depositions typically take place out of court and can last anywhere from an hour to longer than a week.

Once both parties have all the evidence in the case, they may decide to resolve the case through a means other than trial. A party may again file a motion for summary judgment or the parties may reach a settlement agreement.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is also a possibility. For example, the parties may decide to pursue mediation. In that case, an impartial mediator helps the parties reach a mutually agreeable resolution. Parties often choose this option because mediation is cheaper, less stressful, and less formal than civil litigation.

If the parties can't agree at the end of discovery, the next step is for the judge to issue a pretrial order. After meeting with the parties, the judge will provide an order detailing the schedule for trial.

The trial stage: from jury selection to a judgment

The phases of a civil court case are similar to those of a criminal case, but a different burden of proof applies.

Criminal cases require the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But in a civil case, the plaintiff just needs to show that it's more likely than not that the defendant is liable.

The usual process for a civil trial looks like this:

  1. Jury selection. If the parties don't request a jury, a judge hears a civil case in what is called a bench trial. If they do request a jury, the attorneys on each side will question potential jurors from the available pool in a process known as voir dire. This process attempts to eliminate jurors who have biases that would impair their ability to issue an impartial verdict.

  2. Opening statements. The plaintiff's attorneys and the defendant's will make opening statements to the jury, outlining their client's argument and summarizing the evidence they'll present at trial to substantiate it.

  3. Plaintiff calls witnesses and puts on evidence. The plaintiff first calls witnesses to testify, and the defense then has the opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses.

  4. Defendant calls witnesses and puts on evidence. Once the plaintiff rests, or has finished putting on evidence, the defense may proceed with the same process. The plaintiff may then cross-examine the defense witnesses.

  5. Plaintiff may call rebuttal witnesses. The plaintiff has another chance to offer evidence and witnesses to disprove the evidence or testimony put on by the defense.

  6. Closing argument. Both sides' attorneys will offer final statements to the jury summarizing their cases and attempting to persuade the juries of their claims.

  7. Jury instructions and deliberation. The judge will instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case and allow them to retire to deliberate and reach a verdict.

  8. The verdict. The jury's verdict will either find the defendant liable or not liable.

  9. Final judgment. Depending on the verdict, the judge either dismisses the case or issues a final judgment against the defendant for the relief approved by the jury, such as a money judgment.

Post-trial stage: appeals

The party who loses the case, or the party against whom a ruling or verdict was issued, has the right to appeal the case to a higher court. Losing parties waive this right if they don't file their notice of appeal within 30 days after the entry of judgment in the case.

With so many steps, civil litigation sometimes takes years to resolve. If your case is like most, however, you and the other side will reach an agreement that allows you to avoid trial.

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