Civil and criminal trials are different for various reasons, the most important being that a criminal trial is brought not by private parties but by the federal or state governments on behalf of the people and focuses on crimes. Keep reading to learn more about the steps of a civil trial.
What Is a Civil Trial?
A civil lawsuit is a lawsuit for monetary relief or equitable relief, also sometimes called an “injunction.” Civil cases involve allegations of wrongdoing brought by an injured party, the “plaintiff,” against the alleged wrongdoing individual or corporate entity, the “defendant.”
To bring a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff files a “complaint,” a document presenting the plaintiff’s facts and legal theories and asking for help from the court, known as “relief.” The types of relief a plaintiff might ask for from a court include monetary damages, an injunction to prevent the defendant from doing something or to make the defendant do something, or a declaratory judgment, which states the parties’ respective rights and responsibilities under the applicable laws.
After both parties make their case and create the “record” of their evidence, a judge or jury in a civil trial will review the facts and law and hand down an order, judgment, decision, or verdict. At any point along the way, the parties may take matters into their own hands and arbitrate, mediate, or otherwise mutually agree to privately settle the case.
Types of Cases in a Civil Court
Civil courts handle a wide variety of cases. Below are a few common types of claims which are brought before civil courts:
- Breach of contract claims: A breach of contract case results from a person’s failure to perform some term of a written or oral contract without a permitted excuse. The bases for such lawsuits could include a person failing to complete agreed-upon work, someone not paying for a good or service, an employer failing to honor obligations to an employee, or a person failing to pay back a credit card or loan.
- Tort claims: A “tort” is a negligently or deliberately wrongful act that causes injury to someone’s person, property, reputation, or similar, and the injured person is seeking to be compensated for their loss, usually with money. Tort cases include claims for personal injury, negligence, libel, slander, medical malpractice, assault, battery, infliction of emotional distress, fraud, and many other types of alleged wrongs.
- Equitable claims: An “equitable claim” asks the court to order a party to take action or halt some action. For example, cases might include the court-ordered stopping of the destruction of property, the sale of land, soliciting a business’s employees, or marketing to a business’ clients.
- Landlord-tenant claims: Civil courts handle all disputes between residential and commercial landlords and tenants related to things like payment of rent, use of the property, holdovers when a lease expires, and rules and regulations outlined in a lease.
Steps in a Civil Lawsuit
Much like the steps in a criminal trial, there are five general stages of a civil court case: pleadings, discovery, trial, verdict, and (possibly) appeals.
The first pleading in a civil lawsuit is the plaintiff’s initial complaint, which states the facts of the case, the harm done, the laws that were violated, and the outcome or relief sought. After receiving the complaint, the defendant can either answer the complaint or file a motion to dismiss.
Some motions to dismiss are based on procedural issues, like the complaint being filed after a statute of limitations has run or being filed in the wrong courthouse. Other motions to dismiss may focus on the relationship between facts and law in the plaintiff’s complaint and may attempt to have the case thrown out for failing to state the most basic requirements of a claim. At times, the court will permit a plaintiff to have another try and give the plaintiff a window of time to file an amended complaint correcting deficiencies.
The bulk of civil litigation happens in discovery, which is the most lengthy and involved part of the process. Once both parties have filed their pleadings, they may begin to gather information to strengthen their case. During the discovery phase of a civil case, each side can ask the other side to:
- Answer written questions under oath (called “Interrogatories”)
- Provide documents, including emails, text messages, and social media posts (called a “Request for Production”)
- Admit or deny statements of fact (called “Request for Admissions”)
- Undergo a medical or psychological evaluation
- Submit to live questioning under oath (called a “Deposition”)
The steps of a civil trial begin with parties filing a brief describing their arguments and overviewing the evidence they intend to present at trial. During the trial, lawyers will present the case to a judge or jury, starting with an opening statement and outlining each party’s argument. Next, both sides present their evidence and call witnesses to the stand if they have witnesses. Once the case has been presented in full, the plaintiff and defendant’s attorneys make closing statements, and the judge or the jury steps away to deliberate their final decision.
Depending on your trial type, the judge or jury deliberates the civil case and announces the verdict. A party can challenge the verdict and make a motion for a new trial, which is common in jury trials, on the grounds that the jury did not receive proper instruction from the judge and therefore did not understand the law. The finding of new evidence may also support the request for a new trial.
If a party does not agree with the verdict handed down by the court, they can appeal and take their case to an appellate court. The appellate court will review the lawsuit and look for discrepancies based primarily on the law. They will then either affirm the verdict. If an error is found, the appellate court may reverse the verdict or order a new trial.
Having the Right Civil Litigation Attorney by Your Side
At the Law Offices of Kretzer and Volberding P.C., our federal civil attorneys are highly skilled and experienced with civil litigation and can answer your questions and help you with your legal needs. Contact our attorneys today through our website or by phone at 713-775-3050.