Civil litigation is a process which settles disputes between citizens, both individuals and organizations. Civil trials are governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). In addition, each state has its own rules of civil procedures but in many states they are similar to the FRCP. Overall the distinct steps of civil litigation process involve:
– Post-trial motions
Step 1: Pleadings– The burden of proof in a civil case is on the party filing the suit. Hence, the litigation process starts with the party filing a complaint. This party is called the plaintiff. The party being sued is called the defendant. Each party in a lawsuit files initial papers called “pleadings”, which explains each party’s side of the dispute.
Two major components, complaint and answer, are the integral parts of Step 1: In the complaint, the plaintiff describes what the defendant did that harmed the plaintiff and presents the legal basis of the case. After that comes the turn of defendant who has to prepare an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint presenting his or her point of the dispute. The defendant is given a specific amount of time to response the plaintiff’s complaint. The defendant can even prepare a counter-claim against the plaintiff alleging that the plaintiff has harmed the defendant and should be liable for those steps. The plaintiff responds to the plaintiff’s answer and may reply a counter claim. When the part of complaint and answer is finished, the next step discovers related information on the case.
Step 2: Discovery– during this phase the parties try to learn as much as they can about the nature of the case and discover the merits of claims and defenses. This phase involves interviews with witnesses, requests for copies of documents, etc. The other way of gathering information about the case is face-to-face answer-and-question sessions under oath which are known as depositions. All this information is gathered formally through written questions. Answer-and-question sessions are recorded by a court reporter. The timing of discovery depends on the issues of the case, court scheduling and availability. After discovery is completed, a trial date is set.
Step 3: Trial– the trial begins with opening statements, where each party presents to the judge a document, called a “brief” describing the arguments and case related evidence. There can be “bench trials”, where the decision is made by the judge alone, and “jury trials”, where both parties question the potential jurors and select a jury. When trial hearings start, the plaintiff presents evidence first, then the defendant. The plaintiff introduces related evidence, calls witnesses and presents important documents. The opposing party has an opportunity to cross-examine the witness. Once all evidence is presented, both sides make closing arguments highlighting key points of the case. The judge or jury then takes the evidence and deliberates the verdict.
Step 4: Post-trial motions– the losing party can appeal the decision to an appeals court. The role of appellate court is to examine the record of the trial court proceeding for reversible errors. The appeal court doesn’t conduct a new trial. Instead, it takes the record of the lower court, related evidence and documents on the case and hears oral arguments from both sides. The appeal court announces its decision which will either affirm or reverse the decision of the lower court.