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What is a Lawsuit?
A lawsuit is a civil action brought before a court in which the party commencing the action,
the plaintiff, seeks a legal remedy. If the plaintiff is successful, judgment will be given in
the plaintiff's favor, and a range of court orders may be issued to enforce a right, impose a
penalty, award damages, impose an injunction to prevent an act or compel an act, or to
obtain a declaratory judgment to prevent future legal disputes.
It usually involves dispute resolution of private law issues between individuals, business
entities or non-profit organizations. However, it may involve public law issues in those
jurisdictions that enable the government to be treated as if it were a private party in a
lawsuit (as plaintiff or defendant regarding an injury), or that provide the government with
a civil cause of action to enforce certain laws rather than criminal prosecution.
Typical Lawsuit Progress.
The Progress of a Lawsuit
The following is a generalized description of how a lawsuit may proceed in a common law
The lawsuit begins with the plaintiff filing a complaint with the court. This complaint will
state that the plaintiff is seeking damages or equitable relief from a stated defendant, and
what the legal and factual bases for doing so are. The clerk of court then issues a
summons, or serves process, upon the defendant to notify him that he is being sued and
provide him with the nature of the claims. Once the defendant receives this notice, he has
a time limit to file a response explaining his defenses to the plaintiff's claims, including any
challenges to the court's jurisdiction, though some courts impose no limit on certain
Usually the pleadings are drafted by a lawyer, but in many courts a person can file papers
and represent themselves, which is called appearing pro se. Many courts have a pro se
clerk to assist people without lawyers.
The early stages of the lawsuit may involve discovery, which is the ordered exchange of
evidence and statements between the parties based on what they each expect to argue
during the actual trial. Discovery is meant to eliminate surprises and clarify what the lawsuit
is about, and perhaps to make a party realize they should settle or drop the claim, all before
wasting court resources. At this point the parties may also engage in pretrial motion filing
in order to exclude or include particular legal or factual issues before trial, by blocking the
other party from presenting a particular witness or arguing a particular legal theory.
At the close of discovery, the parties may pick a jury and then have a trial by jury. Or, the
case may proceed as a bench trial heard only by the judge, if the parties waive a jury trial,
or if the right to a jury trial is not guaranteed for their particular claim (such as those under
equity in the U.S.) or for any lawsuits within their jurisdiction.
Trial and Judgment
The lawsuit may then proceed similarly to a criminal trial, with each side presenting
witnesses and submitting evidence, at the close of which the judge or jury renders their
decision. Generally speaking, the plaintiff has the burden of proof in making his claims,
which means that it is up to him to produce enough evidence to persuade the judge or jury
that his claim should succeed. The defendant may have the burden of proof on other
issues, however, such as affirmative defenses.
There are numerous motions that either party can file throughout the lawsuit to terminate it
"prematurely"--before submission to the judge or jury for final consideration. These
motions attempt to persuade the judge, through legal argument and sometimes
accompanying evidence, that because there is no reasonable way that the other party
could legally win, there is no sense in continuing with the trial. Motions for summary
judgment, for example, can usually be brought before, after, or during the actual
presentation of the case. Motions can also be brought after the close of a trial to undo a
jury verdict that is contrary to law or against the weight of the evidence, or to convince the
judge that he should change his decision or grant a new trial.
Also, at any time during this process from the filing of the complaint to the final judgment,
the plaintiff may withdraw his complaint and end the whole matter, or the defendant may
agree to a settlement, which involves a negotiated award followed also by the plaintiff
withdrawing his complaint and the settlement entered into the court record.
After a final decision has been made, either party or both may appeal from the judgment if
they are unhappy with it (and their jurisdiction grants the ability). Even the prevailing party
may appeal, if, for example, they wanted an even larger award than was granted. The
appellate court (which may be structured as an intermediate appellate court and a higher
supreme court) will then affirm the judgment, refuse to hear it (which effectively affirms),
reverse, or vacate and remand, which involves sending the lawsuit back to the lower trial
court to address an unresolved issue, or possibly for a whole new trial. Some lawsuits go
up and down the appeals ladder repeatedly before finally being resolved.
When there finally is a final judgment, the plaintiff will likely be barred under res judicata
from trying to bring the same or similar claim again against that defendant, or from
re-litigating any of the issues, even under different legal claims or theories. This prevents
a new trial of the same case with a different result, or if the plaintiff won, a repeat trial that
merely multiplies the judgment against the defendant.
If the judgment is for the plaintiff, then the defendant must comply under penalty of law
with the judgment, which will usually be a monetary award. If the defendant fails to pay, the
court has various powers to seize any of the defendant's assets located within its
jurisdiction. If all assets are located elsewhere, the plaintiff must file another suit in the
appropriate court to seek enforcement of the other court's previous judgment. This can be
a difficult task when crossing from a court in one state or nation to another, though courts
tend to grant each other respect when there is not a clear legal rule to the contrary. A
defendant who has no assets in any jurisdiction is said to be "judgment-proof." In most
cases, nothing can be done to collect an award from a money less defendant.
Unfortunately for plaintiffs, imprisonment of an indigent judgment-proof defendant is
simply not available as an alternative remedy; debtor's prisons have been outlawed by
statute, constitutional amendment or international human rights treaties in the vast
majority of common law jurisdictions.
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