General Litigation and Trial
Before a lawsuit is filed, the person contemplating the lawsuit (called the plaintiff) typically demands that the person who caused the alleged injury (called the defendant) perform certain actions that will resolve the conflict. If the demand is refused or ignored, the plaintiff may start the lawsuit by serving copies of a summons and complaint on the defendant and filing the complaint with a civil trial court. The complaint must state the alleged injuries and attribute them to the defendant, and request money damages or equitable relief.
If the service of the complaint on the defendant does not result in a settlement of the issues, the plaintiff must begin the discovery process. This involves sending to the defendant written questions (called interrogatories) that seek information involving the dispute at issue. The plaintiff may depose the defendant and others concerning the issues, with the deposition recorded by a court reporter. The plaintiff may also request copies of documents for review. Once litigation commences the defendant is also permitted to use discovery to learn more about the plaintiff's case. The discovery process may be conducted in a matter of weeks, or it may take years, depending on the complexity of the case and the level of cooperation between the parties.
After discovery is completed, most courts require the parties to attend a settlement conference to determine if the case may be resolved before trial. If the parties are unable to reach a settlement, the litigation continues to trial. Near or on the day of trial, one or both parties often make settlement offers, in the hope of avoiding court proceedings (which are often costly and protracted). Litigation ends if a settlement is reached.
If the parties are still unable to resolve their differences, a trial is held. At trial both sides are permitted to introduce relevant evidence that will help to prove to the jury or the court the truth of their positions. If the plaintiff makes a convincing case, the defendant may seek to settle the case immediately. On the other hand, if the plaintiff presents a weak case, the defendant may ask the court to dismiss the case. If the trial proceeds to a conclusion, either the jury or the judge (if a jury trial was waived) must decide which party prevails.
If the defendant loses the lawsuit, the defendant may ask the court to throw out the jury verdict if the evidence did not warrant the decision, or the defendant may ask that the damages awarded to the plaintiff be reduced. The court has discretion to grant or refuse these kinds of requests.
Once a final decision has been made at the trial court, the losing party may appeal the decision within a specified period of time. The federal courts and the states have intermediate courts of appeal that hear most civil appeals. The appellate court reviews the arguments of the parties on appeal and determines whether the trial court conducted the proceedings correctly. Once the appellate court issues a decision, usually in opinion form, the losing party may appeal to the state supreme court if the litigation occurred in a state court, or to the U.S. Supreme Court if the litigation occurred in a federal court. After the supreme court rules on the case, the decision is final.
Once a decision is final, litigation ends. The prevailing party is then given the authority to collect damages or receive other remedies from the losing party. After the losing party provides the relief, that party is entitled to receive from the prevailing party a satisfaction of judgment, which is filed with the trial court. This document attests to the satisfaction of all court-imposed relief and signifies the end of the case.