Understanding the phases of litigating a civil case: a guide for high school students

By JD Howlette Law
The United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC

Participating in (or litigating) a civil case is a complex dance of strategy, rules, and persuasion. While TV shows might focus on the dramatic courtroom battles, there is a lot that happens behind the scenes. Maybe you've seen courtroom dramas on TV and thought, "is that how it really happens?" Well, let's break down the phases of litigating a civil case in simple terms.

1. The Complaint: Starting the Game

Imagine you're playing a game, and someone breaks the rules. In the legal world, when someone believes they've been wronged, they can file a "complaint" in court to start the lawsuit. The complaint tells the court what happened and what the person (referred to as the "plaintiff") wants in return, which is usually money or some specific action.

2. Service of Process: The Invitation to the Game

Once the complaint is filed, the other party (the "defendant") needs to know about it. Think of it as sending them an invitation to join the game. This is called "service of process," and it allows everyone to know what's going on. Each state has its own rules that govern how and when service of process must be performed.

3. Answer: The Response

The defendant doesn't just sit there after being served with the complaint; they get to respond. They can agree, disagree, or even bring up their own issues. The defendant's response to the complaint is called an "answer." The defendant can also separate try to end the game by filing a motion to dismiss the complaint.

4. Discovery: Digging for Clues

After the defendant answers the plaintiff's complaint, both sides need to gather information to make their case. This phase, called "discovery," is like a detective phase, and it usually begins shortly after the defendant files their answer to the complaint. In the discovery phase, the plaintiff and defendant can ask questions (also called "interrogatories"), request documents, and interview witnesses (known as "depositions"). It's all about finding clues and evidence to build a strong case.

5. Pre-Trial Motions: Asking for Early Decisions

After the discovery phase ends, and before trial starts, both sides can ask the judge to make decisions on certain issues. The requests can include throwing out evidence, dismissing parts of the case, or even ending the lawsuit altogether.

6. Trial: The Big Showdown

If the case has not been settled or dismissed up to this point, then it goes to trial. This is the dramatic part you see on TV: witnesses, evidence, and arguments. Both sides present their case, and either a judge or jury decides the outcome.

7. Verdict: The Decision

After hearing everything, the judge or jury makes a decision to decide who wins, who loses, and what the consequences are.

8. Post-Trial Motions & Appeals: Second Chances

Even after a verdict, the game is not necessarily over. The losing side can ask the judge to reconsider the decision or they can file an appeal to a higher court, hoping for a different outcome.

9. Enforcement: Claiming the Prize

If one party is ordered to pay money or take some action, they need to comply with the judgment of the court. If they don't, the winning side can take steps to enforce the judgment, like seizing property or garnishing wages.

In Conclusion

So, the next time you watch a legal drama, you'll know there's more to the story than meets the eye!