The state and federal courts are where many business issues end up being resolved. The power of the courts can be wielded by an aggrieved party to obtain justice against a wrongdoer. On the other hand, not all entities that file lawsuits have the best of intentions.
A lawsuit is started by filing a “complaint” with the court. The complaint contains general allegations about the alleged wrongs the plaintiff has suffered. Complaints don’t need to be very specific, but they are required to contain certain elements. A defendant can object to a legally deficient complaint, which sometimes results in the lawsuit being tossed out of court.
Once the complaint is accepted by the court, the court will issue a “summons.” A summons is a legal document signed and stamped by the court itself. The summons informs the defendants of the pending lawsuit and provides general directions on their time to respond. A defendant that ignores a summons will risk the court taking their “default.” This means that the defendant automatically loses the lawsuit because they failed to participate.
A defendant has a certain amount of time to file an “answer” to the complaint. The answer is a formal legal pleading that admits or denies the allegations contained in the complaint. As stated above, it is very important to file the answer by the deadline contained in the summons.
Once the defendant has appeared in court to file the answer, the parties begin the “discovery” process. Discovery is where both sides to a lawsuit trade information and documents about their respective cases. The law requires frank disclosure of information, both good and bad. This process is intended to show the parties the relative strengths and weaknesses of their cases. Discovery is an important litigation tool that can make or break a case. It is also one of the most time-consuming and expensive aspects of litigation.
The courts generally aren’t invovled much in the discovery process — unless there is a dispute over the discovery rules that needs to be resolved by the court. During this process, most California courts will require the parties to pick a trial date and set deadlines for the case.
In some cases, it may be appropriate for one or both sides to file a “motion for summary judgement.” This is document that allows the court to rule on the merits of all or part of the lawsuit without the need for a formal trial. Some lawyers refer to this as a “paper trial” because there are no witnesses — just legal pleadings and documents being presented to the court. Motions for summary judgement are not appropriate in every case, but used appropriately, they can save significant amounts of resources that would otherwise be used for trial.
If settlement negotiations aren’t successful and the case isn’t resolved by motion work, the parties will ultimately bring their dispute to a formal trial before the court. Some lawsuits are presented to a jury, while some are “bench trials” where only the judge determines the outcome. In either case, trial preparation and trial itself are incredibly intense endeavors that require a great amount of preparation. A strong case can be easily lost by the lack of adequate preparation.
This is just a brief overview of a typical civil lawsuit in Sacramento. If you are contemplating filing a lawsuit, or have been served with a summons and complaint, please contact my office at (916) 333-2222.