When most people think of the American legal system, they probably think of a courtroom where lawyers argue their cases to the jury. The media and entertainment industry have bombarded the viewing public with dramatic images of the law in action. However, television and the sliver screen only provide a mere glimpse into the actual stages of a lawsuit. Lawsuits may take years to resolve and often do not end with a dramatic courtroom scene. Further, many lawsuits are settled before either party ever steps into a courtroom. Given the possibilities, it is helpful for a person considering, or faced with, a lawsuit to have a broad overview of the stages of a lawsuit.
The Beginning Stages
Once you believe you are involved in a situation that requires legal action, finding a knowledgeable and experienced attorney should be your first priority. Gaining the aid of a seasoned attorney, especially one experienced in the specific area of your legal issues, is the most important thing you can do to secure a favorable result. Generally, your first contact with a potential attorney will be during an initial client interview. During this interview the attorney will ask you questions about your legal dilemma. Then, the attorney will give you his or her opinion on the issue and advise you of your options. If the attorney believes you have a viable case and you choose to hire that attorney, the lawsuit can be commenced.
In most states, the filing of a complaint officially starts a lawsuit. A complaint includes the facts of the situation showing a legal right and legal wrong.
The defendant has several options as to how to respond to the plaintiff's complaint. For example, the defendant can deny the allegations set forth in the complaint or can introduce defenses. He can also admit to the allegations in the complaint, either by specifically acknowledging their truth or by failing to deny them properly.
After the complaint has been filed and the defendant has entered his response, the attorneys on both sides will enter into the discovery phase of the lawsuit. During discovery, the attorneys gather as much evidence as possible about the situation. The discovery phase of litigation serves several important purposes: it can be used to preserve evidence of witnesses who may not be available at trial; to reveal facts; and, to aid in formulating the issues to be litigated. Depositions are probably the most useful discovery device. A deposition is a sworn pretrial testimony taken out of court in response to oral examination and reduced to writing by a stenographer for use in court. Both parties have the opportunity to question the witness during the deposition. Furthermore, during the discovery phase parties can obtain access to documents and other items not in their possession. Discovery rules are liberal, allowing a great deal of evidence to be revealed. Depending on the complexity of the suit, the discovery phase may last a year or more.
Resolution Without Trial
Many cases are disposed of before going to trial. Today, the trend is to settle the disputed issues without unpredictable trial. For the settlement to officially end a lawsuit, both parties must agree to be bound by the terms of the settlement. Settlement is the favored way to resolve a legal dispute because parties are able to secure their own interests by taking an active role in designing the resolution.
After the case has proceeded through discovery, it will be placed on the court docket and a trial date will be assigned. Jury and non-jury trials follow the same general rules of order. Generally, the trial proceeds as follows. The plaintiff's attorney followed by the defendant's attorney each make opening statements, explaining what he or she intends to prove. The plaintiff's witnesses and evidence are introduced, examined and cross-examined. Then, the defendant's witnesses and evidence are introduced, examined and cross-examined. Finally, both the plaintiff and defendant are allowed to introduce rebuttal evidence. After all the evidence has been submitted, each side presents a closing argument summarizing the evidence most favorable to their party. Generally, the plaintiff makes the first closing statement and has a right of rebuttal after the defendant's closing argument.
If it is a jury trial, the judge will instruct the jury as to the law that is to be applied. Generally, the judge requires the parties to submit proposed jury instructions. While some states have standard instructions that must be used, other states allow the parties some input as to how the instructions will be worded. The jury then retreats to the jury room where they deliberate until a verdict is reached. If the jury returns a verdict, the judge generally will enter a judgment on the verdict.
Once a judgment is entered, the winning party is entitled to the amount of the judgment. However, the actual amount the prevailing party receives and when they receive the money, is dependent upon many factors including whether there is insurance coverage available to pay for the judgment. Prevailing parties may encounter problems when trying to recover the money from the losing party. The prevailing party may be forced to commence collection (called "execution") proceedings against the losing party.
Appealing the Court's Decision
Trial decisions are not final. If a party is not satisfied with the results of his or her trial, an appeal of the judgment can be made to a higher court. Although a party usually has the right to an appeal, there are strict time deadlines in which the appeal must be commenced.
Today, many people are turning to the legal system to help them resolve disputes. However, much more time and procedures are involved in bringing a lawsuit than most people realize. Because the process is so complex, it is necessary to enlist a knowledgeable and experienced litigation attorney who has ample experience with your legal issues.