The parties in a civil lawsuit are known as the plaintiff and defendant. The plaintiff brings the lawsuit against the defendant by having his or her attorney file a complaint with a court. The complaint states what the dispute is about, why the defendant is responsible, and asks the court to take a stated course of action, usually awarding money damages. Other forms of remedy can also be sought, such as an injunction, which bars a person from doing a specific act, either temporarily or on a permanent basis. The plaintiff also serves a copy of the complaint, together with a summons, on the defendant. A summons is an official court document notifying the defendant that he or she must answer the complaint in writing within a specified period of time. In Florida, that period is 20 days. If the defendant does not answer in time, the plaintiff wins by default.
The defendant's written response to the complaint is known as the answer. The answer admits or denies allegations in the complaint. It also states any defenses to the complaint, such as if there is a lack of subject matter jurisdiction or the statute of limitations has already expired. The answer can also contain any counterclaims that the defendant would like to make against the plaintiff. The counterclaims, however, have to relate to the plaintiff's complaint. The defendant cannot counterclaim about entirely unrelated issues -- that would be a different lawsuit.
As any lawyer can tell you, an uncomplicated lawsuit is a rarity. Plaintiffs may sue additional defendants and bring them into the original lawsuit. Outside parties with a related claim sometimes wish to intervene. Defendants may make counterclaims against the plaintiff, sue other third parties and bring them into the original suit, or even sue other co-defendants. For situations in which there is a large class of plaintiffs with similar claims against one or more defendants, plaintiffs can seek to file a class action lawsuit. An example of a class action would be people all over the country who have been hurt by a product and who sue the manufacturer in one single action. The rationale behind such suits is that both plaintiffs and defendants benefit by having one large lawsuit rather than hundreds or thousands of individual ones.
In preparation for trial, parties often gather information from one another and from other sources. This period of information gathering is known as discovery. Discovery can take a number of different forms. Parties can ask one another for copies of documents; they can submit interrogatories, which are written questions the other party must answer under oath; they can ask the other party to submit to a physical or mental examination and provide the examination results; or they can conduct depositions, which are sworn statements by witnesses conducted in question and answer form.
The vast majority of cases settle before the parties reach the courthouse steps. Sometimes the cost and effort in preparing for trial will persuade parties to reevaluate their positions. Parties may negotiate their own settlement or use some means of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to bridge their differences (see the Alternative Dispute Resolution chapter). Another way a lawsuit can be concluded before reaching trial is through a summary judgment. If, after the complaint and answer have been filed, it is clear that there is no dispute concerning the facts, only the parties' interpretation of the facts, then the judge will grant a motion of summary judgment and make a decision by applying the facts to the law.
However, if there is a genuine dispute about the facts in the case and the parties are not interested in settling, they will proceed to trial. An outline of how a trial is conducted follows a discussion of the criminal process.