Nearly everyone has seen or heard about trials on TV. But what about the other parts of a lawsuit? Before you begin to navigate through this process with your lawyer, it’s helpful to have some general understanding of how the pretrial process works.
First, civil lawsuits can arise as a result of disputes between not only people, but also businesses, government entities, or other entities. To commence a lawsuit, a Complaint or Petition must be filed with the clerk of the court in the proper county of the State of Florida. Where the damages claimed are greater than $15,000, the lawsuit must be filed in circuit court. For claims seeking damages less than $15,000, the lawsuit is filed in county court. The person who files the lawsuit and brings the claim is called the “plaintiff.” The person against whom the lawsuit is filed is called the “defendant.”
The Complaint must state a cause of action, and must contain short and plain statements of the grounds upon which the court’s jurisdiction and the ultimate facts showing the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Of course, the plaintiff must also ask for some kind of relief, whether it is monetary damages or some other action the Complainant wants the other party to take. These “short and plain statements” must contain specific facts that, if true, would justify the court or jury granting the relief or damages sought by the plaintiff. The allegations in the complaint must also demonstrate that the lawsuit is being filed in the correct place, and must level certain allegations supported by facts against the other party that give the complainant the right to sue.
After the plaintiff files the complaint or petition with the appropriate court, the clerk can issue a summons. The plaintiff must then serve a copy of the summons, as well as the complaint or petition, on the defendant. There is a robust body of law that talks about the proper way and circumstances service can be accomplished. But in general, the summons and complaint are usually hand delivered to the defendant by either a process server or the sheriff. Once the defendant has been served, he or she has 20 days to respond to the complaint.
The defendant normally responds to the complaint by filing an answer that admits certain allegations, denies other allegations, and raises affirmative defenses, if applicable. In some instances, it is also appropriate for the defendant to file a motion to dismiss or other motion that either challenges the sufficiency of the complaint or some procedural aspect of the lawsuit. There, the Court can throw out the case entirely, or it may require the plaintiff to clarify or correct mistakes or deficiencies by amending the complaint. If any of these requests to dismiss or clarify or correct are granted, the process could start over with a new case, or an amended Complaint, Answer, or Reply.
The Defendant’s Answer responds to each one of the Plaintiff’s allegations, and provides the Defendant with an opportunity to tell his or her side of the dispute. Affirmative defenses are legal or factual arguments that typically assert various reasons why, even if the plaintiff’s factual allegations are true, the plaintiff should not prevail against the defendant. One example might be for a defendant to assert a statute of limitations, which limits the time period in which the plaintiff could legally bring a claim for the particular harm alleged by the complaint. In some cases, the defendant may also file a counter-claim, which is a complaint alleging that the Plaintiff should be held responsible for the harm inflicted against the Defendant. Once the defendant files an answer (and, in cases where the defendant files a counterclaim, the plaintiff files an answer to the counterclaim), the lawsuit will have specific and defined issues to be proven at trial. (The initial Complaint, Answer, and any other documents filed in Response or Amended documents as discussed above are called pleadings).
After that initial pleading process is over, the parties then engage in discovery. Discovery refers to the process of gathering information from the other side or a third party. Discovery is very important in determining the merits of a case, evaluating strengths and weaknesses, quantifying harm, and figuring out the evidence likely to be presented at trial. Discovery is the most time consuming part of a case; it involves several different methods. First, one side can ask the other side certain questions that require written, signed, and notarized responses; these questions are called Interrogatories. Secondly, a party can request the other party produce various documents; this type of request is called Requests for Production. Third, a party may ask the other side to admit certain statements and facts; this is called a Request for Admission. Additionally, the parties can formally ask questions of the other side’s witnesses through depositions, to determine what they know about the case and what they may say at trial. These questions and answers during a deposition are recorded by a court reporter and may be used as trial to rebut what the witness contends at trial, if there is an inconsistency. Additionally, sometimes, the deposition testimony may be used in place of an actual witness’ testimony if the witness is unavailable at trial.
Expert witnesses require special attention and preparation. Often, some allegation or defense requires expert testimony to support or refute it. Experts work carefully with their side’s attorneys to help prepare the case for trial.
After the discovery process, assuming the case does not settle, then the case will proceed to a trial. The party who loses at trial then has the option of appealing the trial decision, or asking a higher court to review it.
While filing a lawsuit can be a daunting process, knowing the basic chronological steps of the pretrial process can be helpful in understanding what to anticipate. While every case is different and the above was meant only as a basic overview, (for example, a Motion for Summary Judgment which the Judge grants can also dispose of the case), the attorneys at Saunders Law Group can answer any specific questions you have about the different phases of a lawsuit. Call today.