Chronology of a Civil Lawsuit
by Rob L. Wiley
Commencement of a Lawsuit:
A civil action in Texas begins with an Original Petition (called a Complaint in federal court) filed with an appropriate court and served on the defendant as a “summons.” An Original Petition states the claims that the plaintiff (the individual or entity bringing the lawsuit) advances against the defendant (the individual or entity being sued). Typically, a lawyer prepares the Original Petition, also called a pleading. With some types of claims, the law requires that the plaintiff deliver a demand letter to the defendant before filing suit.
Unless the defendant will voluntarily accept service, a law enforcement officer or other individual approved by the courts, called a civil process server, delivers the papers to the defendant.
Response to a Lawsuit:
The defendant has to answer within a certain time (approximately three weeks in Texas state court cases). The answer describes the defendant’s response and may state whether the defendant has claims against the plaintiff.
If the defendant doesn’t answer, the court may enter a default judgment against the defendant. If the answer contains a counterclaim or complaint against a third party, the plaintiff or the third party also must answer within a certain time.
The parties to a civil suit exchange documents and other information about the issues related to the litigation in a process called discovery. Discovery can take several forms, including a request for admissions, request for disclosure, request for document production, and interrogatories. Another common discovery tool is the deposition. Depositions are formally transcribed and sworn statements taken before a court reporter. Lawyers use the information gathered during discovery in preparing the case for trial.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR):
Often the parties can voluntarily resolve some or all of issues in a case without actually going to court. Examples of ADR include mediation and negotiated settlement. The parties can also agree to binding arbitration and some contracts, like insurance contracts and brokerage agreements, often include arbitration provisions. Many courts require that litigants in civil cases go through some kind of ADR before trial. Courts normally have little, if any, involvement in the ADR process.
In many cases one or both of the parties will try, before trial, to dispose of the case, or a portion of it, by motion filed with the court. Basically, the parties present to the court those issues that they believe are not in dispute, either because the parties agree as to the facts, or because application of the law to the facts dictates a particular result. One type of dispositive motion is a Motion for Summary Judgment. Such motions ask the court to resolve the case on papers and assert that legal principles require a certain outcome.
Trial by Judge or Jury:
If the parties do not reach an agreement, and if the matter does not get disposed of by motion, the case will go to trial. In most civil cases, either party can choose to have a jury.
At trial, the parties present evidence and arguments for each side and the judge or jury decides the unresolved issues. Once the judge or jury has reached a decision, the judge will order entry of judgment for the prevailing party. A judgment awards the prevailing party damages, attorneys’ fees and costs if provided for by law, and, in some cases, injunctive relief ordering the losing party to do something (or stop doing something).
© 2006, Rob L. Wiley, All Rights Reserved
The information provided above does not serve as a substitute for consultation with an attorney. Specific legal issues, concerns, and conditions always require the advice of appropriate legal professionals.