A Lawsuit From Start To Finish
For most people, being sued is something that is thought only to happen to other people. Nobody wants to think about being served with "papers" and having to face going to court. Many hope they are not involved with either being sued or having to sue. Some may go through life and never have to face a lawsuit, but most will have some degree of involvement in a suit, whether directly, or a suit involving family or close friends. It's important to know the basics of what happens during a lawsuit to be able to make informed decisions under those stressful circumstances.
A lawsuit is analogous to a tennis match, with the Plaintiff serving a Summons and Complaint on the Defendant, and the Defendant having 30 days to send an Answer back to the Plaintiff. Then documents like a reply and discovery go back and forth between the two parties just like the dynamics on a tennis court. A party bringing the suit is called the Plaintiff (or Plaintiffs), and he is required to file his lawsuit, Summons, and Complaint, with the court having jurisdiction and then serve the papers to the offender, who is called the Defendant (or Defendants). After receiving the Complaint, the Defendant has 30 days to answer with either admissions or denials of the allegations, and the Answer can include what is commonly referred to as a counter-suit or the proper name of a counter-claim. If the Plaintiff receives a counter-claim from the Defendant, he has 30 days to send a Reply answering the counterclaim with either admissions or denials.
This first step takes typically 2-3 months.
After the initial Complaint and Answer and potential Reply, the next step in the lawsuit is Discovery requests. Either party can send the Discovery requests first, and when received the receiving party has 30 days to provide the answers. Unlike the service of the complaint, the discovery requests (Interrogatories, Requests for production, Requests to admit) are mailed to the other side. They do not need to be physically delivered to parties. If parties have attorneys, this step is between attorneys, with attorneys gathering information from their clients to answer discovery.
The next step of the discovery process is depositions of key individuals, like the parties and witnesses. This is usually arranged by attorneys and involves those being deposed being put under oath and answering questions of the other side which are recorded for possible use at trial. The completion of depositions normally ends the discovery phase of the lawsuit, and this usually is more than six to nine months after the Complaint was served.
Based on what evidence is gathered during discovery, a party sometimes will file a motion for summary judgment. This motion could be filed any time after the initial pleadings but is usually at this point in the lawsuit. This motion would bring both parties to court in front of a Judge and is normally filed by the Defendant seeking to end the suit. The party bringing the motion must convince the judge that even with believing everything the other side has claimed, though being allowed to show an admission of the part of the party during discovery, the judge must grant them a verdict. Again, this is normally the defendant attempting to have the judge end the suit against the defendant. It is rare to have a judge grant summary judgment.
In many instances, parties will mediate at this point. At any point in the suit, parties can settle. However, after discovery and any summary judgment motion, parties are in a much better position to know about the strengths and weaknesses of their claims or defenses. Mediation is normally the last step before trial, and most cases do settle prior to trial. In many jurisdictions, parties must make an attempt at mediation prior to trial.
Trial normally comes a year or more after the Complaint is served. In most cases, a party has requested a jury trial, so a great deal of preparation will go in to picking a jury and planning the trial of the case. Even during this period, and even during the conduct of the trial, parties will sometimes settle. Once Jury has delivered a verdict, the suit is normally finished. Parties have the right to appeal, and parties can even request the judge to add or take from the jury verdict (though this is very unusual).
The above is only the basic elements of the cycle of a lawsuit, and do not include everything lawyers are doing during the process. The timelines will vary, as I have only provided estimations. However, this should help in knowing what is happening and being able to check on what your attorney is doing on your behalf.