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Finding Your Way Through Court: Steps in a Lawsuit

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If you're not able to reach an agreeable settlement out-of-court, your legal dispute is likely to reach the lawsuit phase. Here's what you need to know as your case winds its way through the civil court system.

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There are countless ways you could find yourself in court, either filing (or facing) a civil lawsuit. Maybe you've been injured in a car accident, or perhaps someone is claiming you owe them money. Regardless of how you got to civil court, chances are it's foreign territory. Most people aren't all that familiar with the different stages of a lawsuit (most legal disputes settle, after all) but it's important to get a sense of what's to come, so that you can best protect yourself and your rights. So, read on for a summary of the different steps to expect if your dispute makes its way to court.

Who's Who

The person who starts a lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person who has been sued in the lawsuit is called the defendant. Learn more about the Parties in a Civil Lawsuit.

Complaint and Summons

A lawsuit begins when the plaintiff goes to court and files a complaint against the defendant, and the complaint along with a summons is served on the defendant.

The complaint explains why the plaintiff is suing the defendant and sets out the remedy (i.e. money damages, the return of certain property, or an injunction to stop the defendant from taking certain actions) the plaintiff is asking from the court.

The summons tells the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed and when a response must be made. The summons usually must be "served" on the defendant personally (or on someone authorized to receive "service of process"), but it may be mailed in some situations. A copy of the complaint is attached to the summons so the defendant knows why the suit was filed. (Learn more about Service of Process in a Civil Case.)

Defendant's Answer

The defendant has a limited number of days (usually 20 to 30) to file an answer to the complaint. In the answer, the defendant will usually set out any defenses he or she plans to raise in response to the plaintiff's claims. For example, if the defendant wishes to argue that the plaintiff's suit is barred by the statute of limitations (meaning the suit wasn't filed within the time period allowed by law) the answer will state that argument.

If the defendant doesn't file an answer under the deadline set by the court's procedural rules, the court will usually enter a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. This means the plaintiff wins automatically, without having to prove the defendant did anything wrong. But the defendant can also come before the court and ask that the default judgment be "set aside" so that the lawsuit can proceed on its merits.

Discovery

After a lawsuit is filed, both parties can use the discovery process to gather information about the case. A variety of tools they can be used to investigate the facts and the other side's position, including:

  • Interrogatories (written questions that must be answered under oath, sent from one party to another).
  • Deposition (an in-person, out-of-court session where a party or a witness answers questions, also under oath, and the entire proceedings are recorded in a transcript).
  • Requests for Production (usually this involves the parties asking for and exchanging documents that are relevant to the dispute).

Motions

While discovery is going on (and after it has concluded), the parties will typically go before the judge and ask for different kinds of help (ordering the production of certain evidence, or the subpoena of a crucial witness, for example) and different kinds of relief, including motions for summary judgment, which can basically put an end to the lawsuit.

(Note: Up to this point, we've covered the basics of pleadings and motions in a typical lawsuit before trial. Get more details in our companion article Pleadings and Motions in a Civil Lawsuit.)

Trial

If the plaintiff and defendant can't reach a settlement, the lawsuit will proceed to trial, usually to be held before (and to be decided by) a jury, but sometimes before a single judge (this is called a "bench trial").

The basic process goes like this:

  • Jury selection takes place.
  • Each party offers an opening statement, explaining their side of the case.
  • Each side presents their evidence, and calls witnesses to testify. The plaintiff goes first. Each side also has the opportunity to question witnesses called by the other side (this is called "cross-examination").
  • Once all the testimony and evidence has been offered, each side will make a closing argument.
  • In a jury trial, the judge gives instructions to the jury regarding the applicable law and the evidence that may be considered.
  • The jury holds deliberates in an effort to reach a verdict. Unlike a criminal trial, where the jury must reach a unanimous decision in order to convict a defendant, the jury in a civil trial often need not decide en masse to find in favor of one side or the other. In California, for example, only three-fourths of the jury must agree on a decision in a civil trial.
  • In a bench trial, the judge considers all the evidence and makes a decision.

Judgment

The judgment is the court's official announcement of the decision -- who won and who lost. It also spells out what relief, if any, the plaintiff is given (usually that means a specific dollar amount).

Small Claims Courts

Besides the standard civil lawsuit discussed above, in every state, there is the option of having certain disputes resolved in small claims court. These courts are designed to provide a more streamlined and cost-efficient path toward resolution of disputes where a relatively small amount of money is at stake. Each state has set its own ceiling for the dollar amount that can be at issue in a small claims case, but the cap is usually somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. (For a state-by-state breakdown of the dollar limit, check out Nolo's 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits.)

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