Finding Your Way Through Court: Steps in a Lawsuit

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You may be thinking of filing a lawsuit because you were injured in a car accident or someone owes you money and won't repay you. Or, maybe you're on the other end of a lawsuit and are being sued because you may have caused the accident or owe the money.

Either way, you need to know how to protect yourself and rights, and that means knowing the basic steps of how a lawsuit works. The steps are fairly straightforward, but they need to be followed to the letter or else you may not like how the case turns out.

Some Court Basics

First, you need to know some terms:

  • The person who starts or files a lawsuit is called the plaintiff
  • The person who's sued in the lawsuit is called the defendant
  • Pro se means a plaintiff or defendant doesn't have a lawyer, but rather they're representing themselves in court

Small Claims Court

Every state has a system of small claims courts. They're designed to be an easy and inexpensive way for people to settle disputes involving small amounts of money (usually less than $2,000). The process is much simpler than regular courts, but many of the same steps apply no matter where the lawsuit is filed.

Step-by-Step of a Lawsuit

Each state has it's own rules and processes for lawsuits, so there may be variations depending on where you live. In general though, these are the basic steps:

1. Complaint and Summons

A lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files a complaint against a defendant and requests that a summons be sent to the defendant. The complaint explains why the plaintiff is suing the defendant and what remedy (for example, money damages, the return of certain property, or an injunction to stop the defendant from taking certain actions) the plaintiff wants.

The summons tells the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed and when and where the defendant must appear for court. It may be mailed to the defendant or delivered in person. Also, a copy of the complaint is attached to the summons so the defendant knows why the suit was filed.

2. 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 sets out any defenses against the plaintiff's claim. For example, a defense might be that:

  • The defendant has already paid back the money owed to the plaintiff
  • The plaintiff's suit is barred by the statute of limitations, meaning the suit wasn't filed within the time period allowed by law

Usually, the court will give the plaintiff a default judgment if the defendant doesn't file an answer. This means the plaintiff wins automatically, usually without having to prove the defendant did anything wrong. The plaintiff usually has to prove the amount of damages, though - how much was owed, the plaintiff's medical bills, etc.

3. Counterclaim

Sometimes, the defendant has has a claim against the plaintiff, in which case the defendant would file a counterclaim. For example, say the plaintiff sued the defendant because of a car accident, and the defendant thought that the plaintiff actually caused the accident. The defendant would file a counterclaim against the plaintiff.

4. Discovery

After a lawsuit is filed, both parties can use discovery to gather information about the case. There are all sorts of tools they can use, such as:

  • Interrogatories or written questions to find out more details about an accident, for example
  • Depositions where oral questions are answered under oath
  • Requesting the other party to turn over documents relevant to the case, like medical records, police reports and car repair bills and estimates

5. Jury Trial or Bench Trial

Both sides have the right to a jury trial in many types of civil actions. When a jury trial isn't requested, the trial is held before a judge. This is called a bench trial. The basic process goes like this:

  • Both parties present their evidence and call witnesses to testify. The plaintiff goes first
  • In a jury trial, the judge gives instructions about the law to the jury. The jury then holds secret deliberations and reaches a verdict
  • In a bench trial, the judge considers all the evidence and makes a decision

6. Judgment

The judgment is the court's official announcement of the decision - who won and who lost. It spells out what relief, if any, the plaintiff is given.

7. Motions After the Trial & Appeals

The losing party can ask for a new trial and make other motions trying to convince the judge to change the judgment. Both parties have a right to appeal to a higher court if they think there was a legal error in the trial.

This basic outline gives you a good idea of how a lawsuit works. The whole process, however, may involve other steps. For instance, there are dozens of motions either party may file during the course of a lawsuit. And don't let this brief outline think that lawsuits are are fast - it may take days, weeks, months or years, depending on how complicated the case is.

To protect you legal rights and interests fully, it's usually a good idea to talk to a lawyer before you file a lawsuit or as soon as possible after you've been sued.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I need an attorney for any lawsuit I file, or can I represent myself? What about an appeal?
  • Can I hire an attorney in the middle of a lawsuit I filed pro se?
  • How much will you charge me to look at the court papers I plan to file in a lawsuit and to give me advice during the trial?
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