Coeur d’Alene Family Lawyer Specializing in Civil Litigation
Litigation is the process involved in a court’s hearing of a case. Procedures before, during, and after the trial are included in the definition of litigation, including appeals of the case. A record of the facts will be compiled as the court hears the case. This record includes any legal arguments, evidence, documentation, and testimony.
After hearing the case, the court will render a verdict. At this point, the losing party may choose to appeal to an appellate court. Appeals generally only take legal issues as they relate to the case into account, to make sure that due process was followed. In most cases, no new evidence is considered and no new testimony will be heard.
In civil litigation, the person who files a lawsuit is the plaintiff, and the defendant is the person or party who has been sued. At the start of a lawsuit, the papers filed are known as pleadings. A family lawyer will be able to help you with the pleadings as they pertain to your case, but here are some of the most common legal documents in civil suits.
The first document that is filed is called a “complaint;” in some places, it is known as a petition. This document is a summary of the filer’s complaint against the other party. It will identify those involved in the case, state the legal claims of the filer, give an overview of the facts as they relate to the case, ask for a specific kind of resolution the plaintiff wants the court to order on the defendant (such as to start or stop a certain action or pay some kind of damages), and give the legal foundation for jurisdiction of the court where you filed. The complaint notifies the defendant of the legal basis for the case and the facts of the case as seen by the plaintiff. Any information the plaintiff has received about the facts of the case from a third party will usually be put into the complaint along with the phrase, “upon information and belief.” The complaint doesn’t, necessarily, have to detail the entire case, but, as stated above, is a summary of facts and events.
The next step is to have a summons from the court served on the defendant. For the defendant to be “served” the summons, a person who is not a party to the case – sometimes a member of law enforcement, a process server, or someone else the plaintiff gets or hires to serve the defendant – will locate the defendant at home, work, or some other place. The server must verify that the defendant is the person named on the summons, and then deliver the summons and complaint to the defendant. It is important that the summons and other documents are properly served, as this process gives the court jurisdiction to decide matters pertaining to the case. This summons will reference the complaint, notifies the defendant of the lawsuit, and gives a certain date by which the defendant must file an answer or a document asking for a dismissal. The summons outlines the penalties for not responding in time. Without a response, the defendant can be obligated by the outcome of the case, even if the defendant did not take part in the case. This is known as a default judgment.
It is the defendant’s responsibility to answer the complaint by the deadline set by the court. The answer should contain a response to each paragraph in the complaint, and generally has one of three responses: “admitted,” “denied,” or “insufficient knowledge to admit or deny.” Sometimes, the answer may include legal reasons why the defendant cannot be held responsible for damages, and some of these reasons may also lay out legal reasons for the case to be dismissed.
The defendant may have his or her own claims against the plaintiff, as well. These claims must have also stemmed from the conflict brought to the court by the plaintiff. These counterclaims are brought to the court in the answer to the summons in a separate section entitled “counterclaims,” and are written similarly to the original complaint. If a counterclaim exists in the answer, the plaintiff can then file a reply. Like the answer, the reply can only admit, deny, or state insufficient knowledge, or state legal reasons that the plaintiff cannot be held responsible for the defendant’s damages, or legal reasons for dismissal.
In some cases, there is more than one party involved in a lawsuit stemming from the same incident. This is called a cross-claim. If, for instance, one party files a lawsuit following an incident, and a second party also sustained damages from the same incident, this second party may also file the cross-claim in the same lawsuit against the defendant. Like in a regular suit, the defendant must be served, and will have the opportunity to answer the complaint(s).
There are also cases where a defendant may claim that someone else was responsible for the damages laid out in a suit. This often takes place where there is a contract that states that a third party will pay damages if the defendant loses a case. The defendant in a case may file a third party complaint, which is quite similar to a regular complaint, as it gives the facts of the case and so forth, but also includes a claim against this third party and requests relief. A recipient of a third party complaint will file an answer, just like in a regular complaint.
In civil litigation, the evidence is considered by a judge or jury to decide whether the defendant has a legal responsibility for the damages claimed by the plaintiff. It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to prove their claims in order to get a judgment. The trial will be the defendant’s best opportunity to disprove the claims of the plaintiff. When both the plaintiff and the defendant have presented their sides to the court, the judge or jury will decide based on the evidence presented whether the defendant is responsible for the claims made by the plaintiff, and, if so, how much.
It should be noted that most civil litigation cases are settled before they ever go to trial. Some are even resolved before a lawsuit is officially filed. This often happens through negotiation, compromises, mediation, arbitration, or dismissal.
Civil trials – if the cases go that far – begin by choosing a jury, except in cases where only a judge will hear the case, such as in family court cases. The judge – and, in many cases, the plaintiff’s attorney and defendant’s attorney – will ask potential jurors a series of questions about things relevant to the case, such as the juror’s personal experiences that might have to do with the case or how a juror already feels about a certain issue having to do with the case. Based on how the potential jurors respond to these questions, the judge may excuse some jurors. The attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant can also exclude potential jurors in a process called “peremptory challenges.” In this process, the attorneys can exclude jurors based on anything, including race and gender, if those factors can be shown to be a reason that the juror cannot be objective about the case.
The next step of the civil litigation trial is the opening statements from the plaintiff’s attorney and the defendant’s attorney. Normally, no evidence is brought forth during this step, and no witnesses testify. Because it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to prove the defendant’s legal responsibility for the claims made by the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s attorney usually makes the first opening statement while the defendant’s attorney will go second, or, in some cases, wait to make that opening statement until the plaintiff’s attorney has presented the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff’s attorney will present the facts of the case and explain how the defendant was involved and how the defendant is responsible, essentially giving the court an outline of what arguments the plaintiff intends to make. In the opening statement for the defense, the defendant’s attorney will go over the facts from the defendant’s point of view, and give a summary of how the defense will refute the claims made by the plaintiff.
The next step is the testimony of witnesses. This is often what is known as the “case-in-chief,” and it includes all the major evidence and legal arguments. At this point, the attorneys may also present physical evidence (documents, contracts, medical reports, photographs, et cetera). The plaintiff’s attorney will put forth the evidence to prove that the defendant is responsible, including calling witnesses. These witnesses may be actual witnesses to an event pertinent to the case, or expert witnesses who will testify as to some specific thing, such as, for example, how a particular piece of machinery works. The witness will be called to the stand and then be “sworn in,” which means that the witness is taking an oath to tell the truth. Whichever party called the witness will question him or her first in a process called “direct examination.” After this, the other party will have a chance to question the witness in the “cross examination.” Once the cross examination is complete, the first party will have another chance to ask questions of the witness in what’s known as “re-direct examination.”
Once the plaintiff “rests” the case, the defense can present its evidence to show that the defendant is not responsible for the claims of the plaintiff. The defense may call witnesses or present evidence to attempt to prove that the defendant is not liable for the plaintiff’s claims. Once the defense rests, the plaintiff can respond to the arguments of the defense in what’s known as a “rebuttal.” In a rebuttal, the plaintiff may not make new arguments, but can only refute the evidence presented by the defense. There are cases where the defense may then get its own rebuttal.
The next phase is the closing arguments where both the plaintiff’s attorney and the defendant’s attorney will summarize what the judge and/or jury have heard from both sides. This is the last chance either side will have before the judge or jury considers the case, so the plaintiff’s attorney will again try to show that the defendant is liable, and the defense attorney will try to show how the defendant is not responsible for the claims of the plaintiff. Once the closing arguments have been heard, the judge will instruct the jury regarding the legal principles they will need to use while considering the case. The principles given to the jury are decided by the judge based on the claims and evidence that have been presented.
The jury will then “deliberate” and go over the case. As a group, they must agree on the defendant’s liability or lack thereof, and this process may take only a few hours or it might take weeks. The law in most states calls for a unanimous decision from the jury when it comes to personal injury cases. (Some states do allow for a non-unanimous decision.) The jury’s decision, once one is reached, will be read by the judge in open court. If the jury cannot come to a unanimous decision, it is considered a “hung jury,” and the outcome may be a mistrial. The case may then be dismissed or begin again with a new jury selection.
Want more information on civil litigation? Contact our firm, based in Kootenai County, to speak to one of our family lawyers.
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