It’s easy to get confused by the various filings in a lawsuit. From the filing that starts the case, to the ones that can end it. This infographic and report takes you through the major stages and filings of a lawsuit.
First, a qualification. This process generally applies to federal civil lawsuits. State courts often follow similar processes, but state legislatures and courts can make their own rules and the processes can vary. Criminal law is a procedural world of its own.
When a lawsuit is filed, there’s a process. The first piece of paperwork doesn’t include all the evidence. It includes some allegations. It’s called a Complaint.
A complains of what B did. A describes what happened; says that B broke the law; that A is suffering because of it; and finally, A includes a request for the court to grant some relief. The last part is called a Prayer for Relief.
If you want to get into the weeds, you’ll have to read about the response process to the Complaint. We haven’t gone into that level of detail here, but the next important stage for B – the Defendant – is to try to get that complaint kicked out before the case even gets going. That’s the Motion to Dismiss.
Motion to Dismiss
B files a document saying: Even if what A says is true, it’s not a valid legal claim. In other words, So what if I did that? NOT THAT I DID, but even so, it wouldn’t matter. The law doesn’t allow A any relief for that.
The court evaluates the argument as if all the facts A listed are true. B is arguing that A’s story of what happened doesn’t add up to a legal claim.
So that’s B’s first chance to get out. The judge will decide if B is right. If it doesn’t work, the Court will order the pre-trial process to begin.
The NRA v. NY case we reported on last week is in the Motion to Dismiss stage.
Pre-trial: evidence gathering
In preparing for trial, the parties exchange a bunch of evidence. The process is called Discovery, for discovery of the facts. The sides follow precise rules on requesting information from each other, including responses to questions, documents that are relevant to the case, and even taking interviews of the other side’s witnesses. Expert witnesses are brought into the game as well.
Experts are different from fact-witnesses who saw something or were involved in the actual facts of the case. Experts are reporting on their fields of expertise, helping to inform the court on how to evaluate the evidence. A chemist may tell the court that a gas in a certain quantity is likely to affect the health of a human standing ten feet away. Of course, each side’s experts just-so-happen to bring the court to the outcome that the side prefers.
B’s second shot: Motion for Summary Judgment
Now that the court has all of the relevant facts, B gets another chance to end the case. B says – Wait, you said I broke this law, but your evidence doesn’t add up. That’s the Motion for Summary Judgment.
The tricky part at this stage is that there is still a huge grey area on how the jury (or the judge acting as the jury) will interpret the evidence. If A put forth enough evidence that a reasonable jury could believe A’s story, then the Motion to Dismiss won’t work. B must argue A’s evidence lacks in a stronger way. No reasonably jury could believe that story!
Even if the case is set to go before a jury, this motion is the judge’s call. The judge can make a decision that as a matter of law, the facts don’t work for A.
If B can’t win the judge over on the Motion for Summary Judgment, the case will go to trial. That’s the presentation of evidence before the jury (or again, the judge who is acting as the jury).
Here is a list of the events during a trial.
It’s not always as simple as A wins or B wins.
A might get a reward that’s less than expected. Sometimes, B will have filed a “counterclaim” against A which is evaluated at the same time. That would put B in a position to get an award too.
Further, it’s not always money we’re talking about. In civil rights cases, for example, plaintiffs might be requesting a policy change. The law the plaintiff is suing under is generally what decides the kind of relief available.
Option to Appeal
Either party can appeal an unfavorable ruling. In federal civil cases, here is the general route for appeals.
Settlement can happen at any point along the way! It’s up to the parties. Settlement can even happen during an appeal.