Are you considering filing a lawsuit against someone? Or, maybe you’ve been named as the defendant in one? If so, you probably have questions. Lots of them.
You might wonder…
Will I have to go before a judge?
How long will the matter take to resolve?
What exactly is this going to cost?
Truthfully, predicting every aspect of a civil case is impossible, but having realistic expectations is key for a smooth progression. So, what does it take to file and pursue a civil case? Let’s get into it!
Basics of civil law
Civil law addresses disputes between individuals or businesses. Plaintiffs are the ones to bring a dispute to the court, and defendants are the ones opposing (defending) the claim.
Civil cases can include divorce issues, fights between neighbors, landlord/tenant disputes, or personal injury cases. Think Judge Judy or The People’s Court (minus the live audience and dramatic music). However, they can also include business disputes, wrongful termination matters, or class action lawsuits.
How a civil lawsuit gets started
A civil lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files a complaint and civil case information sheet with the
court, together with a filing fee, and serves a copy of the complaint on the defendant.
If you’re considering filing a complaint with the court…
- Who is the complaint against?
- What did they do wrong?
- What have you lost because of their actions?
- What sort of resolution are you seeking?
Specific types of cases have different limitation periods, so it’s important to contact an attorney as soon as possible to help you craft and file your complaint.
If you’ve been served with a complaint…
At this point, HGTV fans might be wondering… “Can I just DIY this whole deal and save a few bucks?”
While it’s technically possible to represent yourself in court for very simple civil matters, the experience and insight that attorneys provide may save you a lot of time, stress, and, ultimately, money. (And note that courts will generally advise litigants to engage counsel in the early stages of a claim.)
Deadlines for civil lawsuits
There are limitation periods in place that determine how long a claim can be brought after an incident has occurred. Limitation periods are designed to protect would-be defendants from an ongoing and never-ending threat of litigation and to place an impetus on a complainant to act within a reasonable timeframe.
So, what does this mean for potential claimants and defendants? That mailbox you hit with your car on your first solo drive in 1996? Rest easy: the statute of limitations on property damage claims in New Jersey is six years, so you’re safe.
The flip side, though, is that if you have a legal complaint, you need to file it with the court as soon as possible or risk having it dismissed due to the expiration of the limitation period.
There are some limited circumstances in which limitation periods don’t apply, or in which the limitation period doesn’t start ticking away until some time after the incident in question occurred.
If, for instance, the effects or damages of a certain act do not occur until much later than the incident itself, the limitation period may start from when the effects became reasonably apparent. For example: Mr. Burns may yet be liable for dumping toxic waste into the Springfield River in 1999 if the effects of the waste on the town’s water supply and on the health of Springfield’s citizens weren’t detected until 2019.
Processes involved in civil lawsuits
What happens once a civil lawsuit kicks into action?
Each case is different, and there may be an opportunity to resolve matters via mediation or arbitration even after a suit is filed. Barring that, though, here are the general processes involved:
The defendant files an answer
The defendant will have a certain number of days from the date of service to file their answer, together with a filing fee.
In most civil cases, a plaintiff must prove the facts of their case by “a preponderance of the evidence,” meaning they need only show that a fact is more likely than not to be true for it to be accepted by the court.
To this, of course, each party will need to present evidence. Often, this is collected during “discovery.”
Discovery refers to a period during which both parties are required to provide the other with copies of all relevant documents and information relating to the claim.
This is true whether those documents help or hinder the claim. Failure to provide relevant information or documents can result in censure by the court or, in extreme cases, dismissal of your case.
Trial, summary judgment, or dismissal
If the court determines early on that the defendant has no reasonable defense to the claim or that the claim is baseless or has no legal merit, the plaintiff may be awarded summary judgment.
The case may also be dismissed without the need for a trial.
The length—and cost—of civil cases varies
Clients often ask us how much time or money it takes to resolve a civil case. Based on our experience with similar cases, we do our best to provide an accurate time frame for our clients so they know when they can anticipate a resolution to their dispute.
However, justice isn’t always swift. There are no hard and fast rules, and how long a case lasts (and how expensive it becomes) can be affected by several factors:
- Complexity of the case
- The number of parties involved
- Availability of judicial resources, like courtrooms, judges, and juries
- Whether expert testimony is required
- Whether a case can be settled before going to trial
Possible awards and damages
Civil court judges wield different powers of punishment to criminal court judges, and usually can only impose a fine or monetary judgment, not jail time.
If you win a money judgment, don’t expect a same-day deposit. The court is not responsible for enforcing a judgment, and there is no guarantee that a defendant will be ready to pony up on the spot.
You may need to pursue enforcement actions to compel a judgment debtor to pay. In this scenario, there are several avenues you can take, which are outlined on the court websites.
Taking the next step
Now that you know the ins and outs of civil lawsuits, you’re better prepared to decide whether you’d like to file one—or what you should do next if someone files a civil lawsuit against you.
In either circumstance, the experienced civil litigation attorneys at Dressel/Malikschmitt can help you understand your options and identify the right legal strategy for your unique situation.
Contact us to schedule a consultation with an experienced, empathetic attorney who can walk you through the more nuanced details of civil claims based on the unique circumstances of your case.
The content in this article is for general informational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice or a substitute for legal advice. The information above does not create an attorney-client relationship. Any reliance you place on such information is therefore strictly at your own risk.