The Legal Process In The United States

A principal function of the American legal system is to resolve disputes through an attempt to determine the truth.  There are generally two kinds of legal actions filed in the U.S.: civil cases and criminal cases.  This page describes the process of a civil lawsuit.

Civil lawsuits result from disputes between private parties, businesses, or other entities, including government entities.  Examples of civil lawsuits include personal injury, property injury, contract disputes, and civil rights violations.  Often, special courts are established to handle particular forms of civil lawsuits, including landlord/tenant disputes and family matters such as adoption, probate, and divorce.  The consequence of civil lawsuits is typically a money award (“damages”) or some other form of court-ordered relief, such as an order stopping someone from acting in a way that infringes on your rights (an “injunction”), or an order to perform under a contract (“specific performance”).

Civil lawsuits generally proceed in three phases: pleadings, discovery, and trial.

Pleadings.  The person suffering the injury files a document called a “complaint.”  The injured party is called the “plaintiff”; the party being sued is called the “defendant.”  The defendant is then provided an opportunity to respond to the allegations in the complaint through an “answer.”  In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff has the burden to prove that it is more likely than not that the allegations are true.  This is called “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

.  Following those initial pleadings, the parties then engage in a period of “discovery.”  During discovery, the parties exchange information and facts to support or refute the allegations.  Discovery can be in the form of written questions, requests for documents, requests for admissions, or taking the oral testimony (“depositions”) of potential witnesses.  The purpose of discovery is to allow all parties to have equal access to the evidence relevant to the facts of the case.

Trial.  Following discovery, the parties and court prepare for trial.  Whether you are entitled to a jury trial, the size of the jury, and the number of juror votes needed to secure a win varies from state to state and may also depend on the nature of the claim.  During a trial, the judge’s job is to determine the applicable law, and maintain order and civility during the trial, according to the various rules of conduct, procedure, and evidence.  In a jury trial, the job of the jury is to determine the facts, and apply the law as described by the judge to those facts.  If there is no jury, the trial judge assumes all of those responsibilities.

Most civil lawsuits in the U.S. do not get to trial.  An overwhelming number settle either before trial, or are dismissed by the court for lack of merit.

If the case does not settle, jury trials begin by selecting the jurors.  Each side is entitled to participate in jury selection and has the opportunity to challenge potential jurors if the party believes the juror may be biased in some way, or would simply not be a good juror in that party’s subjective estimation.  Following jury selection, the parties are given the opportunity to give an opening statement, where they tell the jury (or the judge if there is no jury) what they expect the evidence during the trial will show.  Because the plaintiff has the burden to prove her case, she is given the first opportunity to present evidence.  This is mostly done through having people testify as witnesses.  The defendant will have an opportunity to cross-examine each.  Following the plaintiff’s presentation of all the evidence she deems necessary to support her allegations, the defendant has an opportunity to present his own evidence and witnesses, if he believes it is necessary.  This time the plaintiff’s lawyer will have an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses called by the defendant.  Following the presentation of all of the evidence, the lawyers are given one last opportunity to convince the jury or judge that the evidence presented during the trial supports his or her client’s position.  This is called the closing argument.  In jury trials, the judge will also give instructions to the jury on what the applicable law is, and what specific things the plaintiff needs to establish to prevail.  The jury then deliberates until it reaches a verdict, or until it reports to the court’s satisfaction that it is unable to reach a verdict.  In that case, a mistrial is declared and the parties must start again with a new jury.

Written by Jamie Kilberg, Dedicated ALDF Volunteer Attorney Member

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