How a Lawsuit Works


A lawsuit is a legal action brought against one or more parties by an individual or corporation (known as the plaintiff) seeking to resolve issues of private law through the court system. Defendants are required to respond to the plaintiff’s complaint or risk a default judgment against them. While the specific procedures for civil litigation vary by state, most cases follow a similar trajectory from initial complaint to trial before a judge or jury.

Before the case can proceed, the court must have jurisdiction over the defendant and venue must be proper (which can also vary by state). Once this is determined, the plaintiff files a summons, complaint and civil law suit notice with the court. The defendant then must be served with these papers within a short period of time, usually 30 days.

The defendant must file an answer to the plaintiff’s claims, addressing each allegation and raising any affirmative defenses. The defendant may also raise counterclaims, which are requests for damages or equitable relief against the plaintiff.

Throughout the course of the litigation, each party gathers evidence to support their positions. This process is known as discovery and can include depositions in which a witness answers questions under oath, interrogatories, and other forms of written or oral questioning. The parties exchange this information with each other and with experts, which helps them prepare for the trial and develop strategies.

At any point before trial, either party can bring a motion to terminate the case “prematurely” by convincing the judge, through legal argument and accompanying evidence, that there is no reasonable way the other party could win the case. These types of motions are generally filed before the trial begins or during it, but sometimes they can be brought after a verdict to undo a jury’s decision that violated the law or was contrary to the weight of the evidence.

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