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If you are planning to sue another person or entity, or if you have been sued, you should learn about the key steps in the legal process. The specific procedures may vary depending on your state, but civil lawsuits follow a certain basic trajectory from the initial complaint until the trial. The party bringing the case is known as the plaintiff, while the party being sued is known as the defendant. You should be aware that most cases end with a settlement before trial, which is a more efficient, less risky option than entrusting the outcome to a judge or jury.

Before you sue, you may want to think about sending a demand letter to the potential defendant. This can help you save the costs of litigation and solve the issue without the stress of a formal dispute. Read more here about how to craft a strong demand letter.

Complaints and Answers

The first step in a lawsuit is filing the complaint and serving it on the defendant. The plaintiff will outline their version of events in the complaint and describe how the defendant’s actions harmed them. They will ask for monetary compensation or another remedy, such as an injunction. The plaintiff will arrange for service of process by an officer of the court, which involves providing the defendant with the complaint and a summons. The summons offers a basic description of the case and informs the defendant of their deadline to respond.

The defendant then will have an opportunity to respond to the complaint with an answer. They must file their answer within the required time period, or the court will enter a default judgment against them. The answer will provide the defendant’s version of events, admitting any statements by the plaintiff that are true and denying all of the plaintiff’s statements that are not true. It also can raise any applicable counterclaims against the plaintiff. Read more here about complaints and answers.


The process of gathering evidence in a lawsuit is known as discovery. This allows each side to get a better understanding of their position and develop strategies for the litigation. It also can promote the settlement process by revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the case. Discovery often involves depositions, which are interviews in which a party or a witness answers questions about the case under oath. It also may involve interrogatories, which are written sets of questions provided by one party to the other party or to someone else with knowledge of the facts in the case.

Other discovery tools include requests for admissions and requests for production. Each party can send requests for admissions to the other party to narrow the issues in the dispute. If the opponent admits that a fact is true or that a document is genuine, these points no longer need to be litigated. Requests for production allow a party to get access to tangible evidence that is relevant to the case. Read more here about the discovery process.


At any point before a case reaches trial, either party or both parties can try to end the case by filing a motion with the court. Most often, the defendant files this type of motion, and the plaintiff opposes it. If the defendant believes that the plaintiff does not have a valid case, they can bring a motion for judgment on the pleadings at the very outset of the case. Similarly, the defendant can bring a motion to dismiss if they identify a procedural problem with the case, such as an issue involving the court’s jurisdiction or the statute of limitations. A motion for summary judgment can be brought later in the process if either party feels that there are no material facts in dispute, and they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Sometimes the losing party in a trial will bring a post-trial motion to correct an apparent error. They might file a motion for a new trial based on a material problem with the proceedings. Or they might file a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict if the jury’s verdict was clearly not based on the evidence. However, both types of motions are challenging to win. Read more here about motions before and after trial.


You may have come across many trials in television or literature, but they rarely happen in reality. If the defendant cannot get the case dismissed, the parties usually will settle rather than taking their dispute all the way to trial. Each party has a right to a jury trial in most cases if the plaintiff is seeking monetary compensation, although the parties can agree to waive this right. Jury selection is a complex process that involves asking jurors questions to identify their likely biases. The parties also can exclude a limited number of jurors for reasons other than bias, within the limits provided by the Constitution.

A trial begins with opening statements by each side and proceeds through the presentation of evidence, including witness testimony. Each side can cross-examine the other side’s witnesses, and then the party that called the witness can conduct a re-direct examination. The plaintiff presents their case first, and then the defendant may ask for a directed verdict if they believe that the plaintiff has not made an adequate case. If this motion is denied, the defendant will present their case. Finally, each side will make closing arguments and propose jury instructions to the judge. Once the jury instructions have been determined, the judge will provide them to the jury, which will deliberate and return a verdict. Read more here about how trials unfold.


If the losing party in a trial is unsatisfied with the outcome, they can consider appealing it to a higher court. An appeal usually will need to identify a specific legal error and show how it resulted in the outcome. An appellate court will not reverse a jury’s decision unless there was a reversible error. This means that the outcome would have been different if the error had not occurred. An appellate court usually will not reverse the decision of a judge in a lower court unless they abused their discretion.

A losing party can appeal not only a trial verdict but also any other final judgment that ends the case. If the court granted a defendant’s motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment, for example, the plaintiff can appeal that ruling. The appeals court would review the record in its entirety in this situation, including the facts as well as the law. Read more here about the appeals process.

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