Civil Litigation FAQ
- What is Civil Litigation?
- Who are "Plaintiffs" and "Defendants"?
- What do I do if I am served with a complaint?
- Can I represent myself?
- When must I respond to a civil action?
- What should I take with me when I meet my attorney?
- What will I have to do after I meet with my attorney?
- How long will this take?
Civil Litigation is a lawsuit between two or more people or entities that does not seek criminal sanctions. The remedy sought in Civil Litigation is usually money or a judgment that requires one party to do something or to stop doing something. There are many cases which may involve Civil Litigation, such as landlord/tenant cases, accident cases, breach of contract cases, discrimination cases, business disputes, medical malpractice, etc.
Plaintiff or Petitioner is the person or entity that starts the action. The Defendant or Respondent is the person or entity that defends or responds to the action. Different jurisdictions use the terms for different actions.
The first question you need to answer is what are you being sued for, and when your answer to the complaint is due. The most effective way to understand your options is to contact an attorney. You only have 30 days from the date you were served to respond to the complaint, so the appointment with an attorney should be scheduled immediately.
During a civil suit, it is not required that you have an attorney. You always have the right to represent yourself. No one else, other than an attorney, may represent you in a court of law.
That depends upon the type of case. With regard to the filing of an action, there are time limits called "Statutes of Limitation" which determine the time frame within which certain actions must be filed. A Statute of Limitations is a bar to a suit in the event that the Statute is missed. Different actions are governed by different Statutes of Limitation. Although these sound like hard and fast rules, many different circumstances may affect the length and applicability of a Statute of Limitations. Therefore, your first priority should be to contact an attorney to make sure that you haven't missed the statute. With regard to a response to a civil action, a good rule of thumb to follow is that you must answer within twenty days. However, seek the advice of counsel before filing any answers. There may be grounds for motions that could be filed to put an end to the suit before your answer is due.
You should bring the summons and complaint. There may be errors with either of those documents that would entitle you to ask the court to dismiss the case. Aside from that, the complaint contains the factual allegations against you that your attorney will have to refute. In addition to the summons and complaint, you should take any documents that relate to the subject matter of the lawsuit. Remember that the term "documents" is not limited to pieces of paper. It includes all manner of electronic communications, including emails. Discuss the facts of the case fully and frankly with your attorney in as much detail as you possibly can. Pay particular attention to the sequence of events. It is always tempting to rush ahead to the part of the story that you think clinches the case in your favor, but the sequence of events is at least equally important. Also, take a moment before your appointment to create a list of the names of people who know about the matter described in the complaint. Be sure to include contact information for the people you identify, because your attorney will want to talk with them in order to prepare them to be witnesses in the case.
After the complaint and answer are filed, the case proceeds through a process called discovery. In discovery, the parties exchange information in order to: (1) determine whether the case can be settled without a trial; and (2) prepare for trial. Along the way there will probably be a mediated settlement conference in which a third party will review the case and discuss settlement possibilities with the parties. If settlement discussions break down, the case will go on to trial.
The time it takes for a lawsuit to proceed through the judicial system varies with the complexity of the issues involved, the number of parties involved and the county in which the suit is brought. Expect the wait to be one year at a bare minimum, but in very complex cases, 18 months to two years is not uncommon.