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Filing a Civil Lawsuit: 5 things to know

It can be surprising–and often frustrating–to learn how lengthy the average lawsuit process really is. People often file claims with the hope of obtaining a quick settlement within a few weeks, but such an outcome is sadly unrealistic. The lifespan of an average civil lawsuit is often a year or more, depending largely on the complexity of the case. Read below to learn more about filing a civil lawsuit, the ballpark timelines for each, and why some phases are longer than others.

1. Pleadings

Every civil lawsuit starts when the plaintiff files her pleading, called the complaint. In the complaint, the plaintiff explains how she’s been wronged, why the defendant is responsible, and what remedies (usually money damages) she requests as compensation. The complaint is set out in numbered paragraphs. The first part of the complaint tells a story by detailing the facts of what happened, usually in chronological order. The second part of the complaint explains the legal foundation for the plaintiff’s claim, such as relevant statutes or supporting case law. The third part of the complaint, called the prayer for relief, explains the compensation the plaintiff is seeking.

Once the plaintiff files her complaint, the defendant has thirty days to file his pleading, called an answer. In the answer, the defendant will respond to each of the plaintiff’s numbered paragraphs, either confirming or denying the information within it (or stating, truthfully, that the defendant has no knowledge of the allegation one way or another).

However, if the plaintiff amends her complaint–either by adding allegations or correcting previous ones–the defendant will have at least another 14 days with which to respond to the amended complaint. The overall timeline for the pleading phase can be anywhere from 4-6 weeks.

2. Discovery

Once the complaint and the answer are filed, the parties begin the discovery process. Discovery is a catchall term for any information relevant to the lawsuit, including medical records, phone records, videos, documents, and the names and addresses of witnesses.

 Certain discovery information makes up required disclosures, and the opposing attorneys must provide each other with this information without being asked. Required disclosures must be given to the opposing attorney within a certain timeframe. For other discovery, the attorneys must request the needed information through depositions, interrogatories, or requests for production.

The discovery phase is the longest stage of the lawsuit, lasting anywhere from several months to a year or more depending on the complexity of the suit. Typically, the judge will issue a scheduling order stating the time limits and deadlines for the discovery phase. However, the judge may extend these deadlines if a party shows good cause.

3. Pre-trial Resolution

Once discovery is complete, the parties enter the pre-trial phase, which is actually where most civil cases end. According to recent studies by the U.S. Justice Department, 90-95% of civil cases never go to trial. Often, the parties will reach a settlement agreement during negotiations or mediation sessions in the pretrial phase. Sometimes cases settle even before filing a civil lawsuit occurs.

Other times, one of the parties files a motion for summary judgment, which requests that the court decide one or all of the issues in a case without going to trial. For a summary judgment motion to be granted, the party must show that no genuine issue of material fact exists as to the issue or issues in question. In other words, both parties agree upon the facts of the issue, but disagree as to how the law should apply to them. If the opposing party wishes for the case to go to trial, they may oppose the motion by responding with evidence of a factual dispute between the parties. If the judge grants a motion for summary judgment, he will rule on the case without sending it to trial.

If the parties do not reach a settlement agreement, or the judge denies a motion for summary judgement, the case will then proceed to the trial phase.

4. Trial

In civil cases, trials are generally scheduled to take place a year or more after the case is filed, although the date may be moved forward depending on the complexity of the case, the amount of discovery required, and the number of motions or demands that the court must rule on.

Although many people think that lawsuits consist primarily of a trial, the trial phase is actually the shortest phase of litigation, usually lasting only two to ten days.

If the case is presented to a jury,  the jurors will decide issues of fact, such as whether the defendant is at fault for the plaintiff’s losses and whether the plaintiff contributed to her own losses in any way.

The jury will also issue a verdict for monetary damages, although the judge has the power to diminish the judgement in accordance with law. Some states have damage caps, legal limits on the amount of money a plaintiff may be awarded in certain cases. If the jury awards the plaintiff a damage amount that exceeds the state damage cap, the judge must reduce the plaintiff’s award to comply with the law.

5. Appeal

If a losing party is unhappy with the verdict reached in their case, they may appeal, but they must do so very quickly: in Tennessee, a party has only 30 days to appeal after the final judgment is reached.

The appealing party, or appellant, must file a brief with the appellate court explaining why the trial court got the verdict wrong. The non-appealing party, or appellee, must file her own brief refuting the appellant’s claims within 30 days of the appellant filing his brief.

Sometimes the appeal will be decided on the merits of the briefs alone. Other times, the parties will request the opportunity to present their sides to the appellate court in oral arguments. If the case is decided on the merits of the briefs alone, the appellate court may issue a decision within a few months of both briefs being filed. If the parties request oral arguments, however, the appeals process may be longer depending on how soon the arguments are scheduled.

Remember, every civil action is different, and some may require more or fewer phases depending on the unique circumstances of the lawsuit. However, these five phases outline the main stages of filing a civil lawsuit and are meant to provide a general idea of the course of events a plaintiff or defendant may expect.

To bring decades of experience and expertise to your civil action, contact the Nashville attorneys at David Randolph Smith and Associates for a free case evaluation.