Stages of a Civil Litigation in the United States

            If you watch a legal drama on television in the United States, the highlight of the episode will almost always be the trial.  Trials make for good entertainment.  Every trial scene showcases a conflict between actors that creates excitement and tension for the audience.

            But civil litigators in the United States understand that litigation is comprised of a number of stages, and the trial is just one stage in this process.  If you are involved in a civil litigation in the United States, you will find it helpful to understand each stage so you and your lawyer can better prepare your case. 

            Major stages of a civil litigation include: pleading, discovery, summary judgment, the trial, and appeal.  We’ll look at each briefly.

            The pleading stage is where each party presents its claims and defenses.  The plaintiff will prepare a document called a Complaint in which she explains why she is suing the defendant.  The Complaint includes numbered paragraphs and each paragraph has allegations that she will need to prove to win her case.  

            The defendant will respond to the Complaint in an Answer, where he will deny or admit the allegations made by the plaintiff.   Just as the Complaint is comprised of numbered paragraphs, the Answer also contains numbered paragraphs in which the defendant responds to each allegation against him.   In the alternative, if the defendant believes the Complaint is deficient, he can ask the Court to dismiss the case instead of filing an Answer.

            After the pleading stage the parties proceed to discovery.  During discovery, the parties acquire and share evidence that is important to the case.  The United States favors broad discovery, in which the parties have the right to extensive disclosure from their adversaries and often from third parties, too. 

            Before trial (and usually after discovery) parties can ask the Court to grant summary judgment.  Summary judgment means that a Court decides all or part of a case without a trial.  A court will grant one party summary judgment if the law and the facts favor that party so strongly that the Court decides a trial is not necessary.

            If the case continues to trial, a jury will decide which party should prevail.  During the trial the judge will rule on what evidence may be presented and will instruct the jury on the law.  In some cases the parties may agree that the judge will decide the case instead of a jury. 

            Finally, after a case ends, the losing party may appeal.  In an appeal, the losing party asks an appellate court to rule that the trial court judge made a legal error.  Appeals usually do not focus on what the jury decided, instead, on appeal a party will argue that the judge made a mistake.  For example, a party could argue that a judge erred by declining to grant summary judgment or by giving the jury incorrect instructions.

            This is a general overview of the civil litigation process.  For more information, you may contact Daniel Edelson or another attorney at Judy Chang law firm.

Copyright© Daniel Edelson, Esq. All rights reserved.


Jenny Park