Even though most of us have seen, heard, or read examples of civil litigation in the media (Erin Brokovich, anyone?), this type of legal matter is far from universally understood. There are lots of misconceptions about what civil litigation is, how it works, and what you should understand if you’re involved in a civil case.
Whether you’re filing a suit or are defending yourself from one, a clear understanding of how these matters work can ease your stress and help you make informed decisions. At Dressel/Malikschmitt, it’s our goal to make legal processes make sense for those in the middle of them.
1. Okay, but what is civil law in the first place?
There are two main areas of law: civil and criminal.
Criminal cases are prosecuted by the State and focus on punishing people who commit crimes like murder, theft, arson, and so on. When someone is found guilty in criminal court, the punishment can include a fine or prison time, depending on the seriousness of the crime.
On the other hand, civil law deals with disputes between two or more parties.
Civil cases are brought by one private citizen against another, usually with the help of attorneys on both sides. Civil cases can include anything from business disputes to family law matters to class action lawsuits.
2. There are many different types of civil litigation cases
There are numerous types of civil litigation cases. Some of the most common areas include (but aren’t limited to):
- Personal injury
- Contract disputes
- Family law
- Class action suits
Because civil cases can encompass various issues, it’s vital to work with legal counsel with the specific experience you’re looking for. A family law firm might provide excellent representation in your child custody case but might not be the best choice if you’re navigating a partnership dispute.
3. Time is of the essence
Civil claims must be brought within the appropriate limitation period, or else they will be deemed invalid by the court and will be dismissed.
Limitation periods vary depending on the nature of the claim, but in all cases, the sooner a case is brought, the better. Speedy action will help avoid difficulties in tracking down witnesses or copies of relevant documents or evidence.
4. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof
If you’re the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, you bear the burden of proving your case against the defendant. You will also be required to engage in the claim fully and comply with all court timeframes, orders, and processes.
This can be a burdensome process, so it’s important to go into the process with realistic expectations and the knowledge that it will be time-consuming. This is where the legal counsel matters; a civil litigation lawyer who prioritizes personalized service can give you a detailed explanation of the process and what you might expect.
If you’re the defendant, though, it’s not on you to prove anything to avoid being found responsible by a jury. Instead, the focus is on finding weaknesses in the plaintiff’s argument instead of trying to prove your innocence.
In some cases, defendants can raise affirmative defenses. For example, if a company is sued for a breach of fiduciary duty, it can claim that there was a good reason for its actions as an affirmative defense. However, they then must provide proof of that claim.
5. Attorney-client privilege only goes so far
Anything you discuss with your attorney is protected by attorney-client privilege and will be kept strictly confidential.
However, if your claim goes to court, any information brought before the court may become a matter of public record and become available to the public via the New Jersey Courts website.
6. The amount and type of damages you may recover depend on the specific facts of your case
If you win your civil case, you’re entitled to what the legal system calls “damages.” This refers to the money you’re entitled to recover from the defendant as the successful party in a civil suit. Damages are meant to compensate you for losses you suffered because of the defendant’s actions.
In some exceptional cases where the conduct of the defendant has been particularly heinous, you might also be awarded punitive damages. Unlike most types of damages, which are designed to compensate the claimant for a specific loss, punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for their conduct.
7. The verdict isn’t the end of the line
In most cases, civil judgments can be appealed. In New Jersey, civil cases are appealed to the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division.
However, the appeals process can be complicated and involves strict form and timing requirements. It is highly recommended that you retain an attorney to assist you during the appeals process, even if you represent yourself in the trial court.
8. Litigation isn’t your only option to resolve civil disputes
If parties to a civil dispute cannot reach a resolution on their own but want to settle the dispute without going to court, they can engage in alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
In alternative dispute resolution, the parties to a dispute agree on a neutral third party, such as a mediator or an arbitrator, whose role is similar to that of a judge. Unlike the traditional court process, though, ADR is a voluntary process and relies on the parties agreeing to abide by the outcome.
ADR is becoming an increasingly popular method of dispute resolution, as it allows parties to avoid the costs associated with going to court and have more direct involvement in the negotiation process. Many companies and employers put ADR clauses into contracts, stating that any contractual or employment disputes must go through an ADR process before a claim is brought before the court.
Mediation is a form of ADR. Usually, parties who agree to participate in mediation will sign a mediation agreement at the outset, confirming that they will participate fully in the process and in good faith. Parties will agree to the appointment of an impartial mediator, whose role is to help the parties reach a resolution.
Parties to mediation can usually have much more personal involvement in the dispute resolution process and can negotiate their settlement in a more direct way.
On the other hand, the outcome of mediation is non-binding unless and until the parties sign a settlement agreement. This can lead to difficulties in enforcing the outcome. For mediation to be beneficial, all parties should go into the process in good faith and with a willingness to comply with the recommendations of the mediator.
Are you considering legal measures to settle a dispute?
When attempting to resolve a situation through conversation leads to nowhere, you might feel you have no option other than to “take it to court.”
Civil litigation can be complex and time-consuming, especially without the guidance of an experienced attorney on your side. But you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) navigate the legal system alone.
Contact our law firm to schedule your free virtual consultation to learn more about your options today.
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.