If you're starting or thinking about starting a lawsuit, it can be overwhelming. The best way to combat stress and anxiety is to learn more about the legal process and what to expect. You can start by learning the stages of a lawsuit. To be clear, a case can go through a number of stages. This article is to help you gain a basic understanding of the stages that most lawsuits undergo. Always talk with your attorney if you have questions.
Pre-trial - Preparing for Battle
Stage 1: Pleadings - The First Step in a Legal Battle
A lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files a petition and serves the defendant with a copy and a summons. The petition describes the facts and events that caused the lawsuit and states what outcome the plaintiff wants (e.g., money). A summons is a separate document that notifies the defendant about the lawsuit and that an answer must be filed within twenty (20) days (in state court). If the defendant doesn’t file an answer by the deadline, the court will enter an order naming the plaintiff as the winning party by default.
The defendant’s answer either admits or denies each allegation in the petition. The answer includes affirmative defenses and any counterclaims or cross-claims. An affirmative defense is a reason why the defendant should not be liable. For example, in negligence cases, defendants often plead the affirmative defense of "comparative negligence." Comparative negligence is an affirmative defense that compares the parties' conduct. If the plaintiff is found to have acted comparatively negligent in causing their injury, the damages awarded to them are reduced.
Most of the time, the pleading stage takes about two months, but it can take much longer depending on how many people are involved and what the issues are. A defendant may raise certain challenges early in the case that could cause delays.
Stage 2: Discovery - Uncovering the Truth
After the parties have joined a case and filed claims/answers, discovery commences. This is the stage where evidence is gathered. A party or a non-party may request information and documents from the other. The parties are free to request anything that could result in admissible evidence at trial. Unless an exception exists, all parties to the suit and non-parties are obligated to furnish the specified information. The answering party or non-party is not obligated to reveal privileged information or produce anything that is excessively difficult or expensive to get. A party cannot, however, refuse to reply to a request or refuse to give documents simply because it is inconvenient or appears to be invasive. Bank account information, social media posts, text messages, emails, and other personal information, for example, could be discovered.
Depositions are a different type of discovery where one person testifies under oath outside of a courtroom. Depositions are typically held in an attorney's office. During a deposition, the deposing party may ask about almost anything. The deponent is required to answer (unless it is privileged information). A court reporter transcribes the inquiries and answers. Transcripts of depositions can be used as evidence in court. Depositions under the Oklahoma Discovery Code can run up to six hours (seven hours under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure). A subpoena must be issued if a party wishes to obtain documents from or depose a non-party.
Stage 3: Pre-Trial - Preparing to Battle
After discovery, the parties start preparing for trial. Typically, this is when the parties file motions for “summary judgment.” Parties can win the case, without a trial, if summary judgment is granted. Courts only grant summary judgment if the essential facts of the case are indisputable, and the law clearly indicates a winning party. The evidence must be so strong that no reasonable person could look at the evidence and conclude differently.
See e.g., Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (holding that summary judgment is improper where a jury could find for the non-moving party). Therefore, Courts rarely grant summary judgment.
Parties may attempt to settle a matter through mediation. Mediation is a process where the parties meet with a neutral third party who tries to help them come to an agreement that ends the case. Usually, mediators are attorneys or retired judges who can help the parties better understand the risks of going forward with the lawsuit. Mediation can happen at any time and sometimes occurs multiple times. But oftentimes, the parties wait until after discovery.
If the parties cannot settle, they begin trial preparation. Parties must identify all the witnesses and exhibits they might use during the trial. Parties are not permitted to use exhibits or call witnesses who were not disclosed to the other parties prior to trial. The parties can try to keep certain evidence out of the trial by filing a motion in limine.
Jury selection happens right before the trial starts. The parties each have the opportunity to ask potential jurors questions to try and find out who would be most favorable or unfavorable to each side. Each party may eliminate a certain number from the pool of potential jurors. See Okla. Stat. tit. 12, §§ 572-575.1 for Oklahoma-specific rules on jury selection.
Juries don't decide all cases. Some plaintiffs choose a judge rather than a jury to decide their case. Juries assess the evidence and decide the issues of fact. For example, in an automobile accident case, the jury must decide if the traffic light was green or red when the defendant went through the intersection and hit the plaintiff's car. The judge applies the jury's findings to the law. In a bench trial, the judge decides both fact and law.
Stage 4: Trial - Presenting Your Case in the Courtroom
Most lawsuits don't reach trial., but when they do, all the parties get to present their side of the story. Plaintiffs present their side of the case first. Defendants have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present their own evidence. The judge or jury will then determine the liability or non-liability of the defendant based on the evidence presented.
Once the jury or judge gives its verdict, the court enters a "judgment." A judgment declares which party wins. When there are multiple claims, sometimes a party wins on one issue but loses on another. If the plaintiff wins, the judgment will state the awarded remedy. In some cases, the judgment awards the prevailing defendant with a remedy (e.g., attorney fees). If the losing party thinks there was a procedural error in the case, they can file an appeal within a short period of time afterward.
Overall, the trial process is designed to ensure that a fair and impartial decision is made based on the evidence presented. It is an important part of the legal system and helps to uphold the rule of law.
Lawsuits can be complex and intimidating, but with the right knowledge and guidance, your mind can be put at ease. From the initial filing of the complaint to the final resolution, each stage requires careful attention and strategic planning. By understanding the purpose and procedures of each stage, you can better prepare yourself for the legal journey ahead. Remember to always seek the advice of a qualified attorney, and approach the process with patience and diligence. With these tools in hand, you can confidently tackle any legal challenge that comes your way.
At Martuch Law, our goal is to provide high-quality legal services at an affordable price, so that you can focus on what matters most. As a client-centered firm, we are dedicated to professional excellence and providing valuable services that get results. Clients enjoy flexible appointments, regular updates, clear explanations, and transparent billing practices, among others. We want you to know that we care about your case and take pride in providing services that are truly worth their value.
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