Anatomy of a Lawsuit

The Pleadings:
First thing a client needs to understand is whether they have a viable claim against another party for damages and/or other equitable relief. The client will generally consult with an attorney and the attorney will analyze the case to discuss case viability and alternative legal theories to find liability on the part of the defendant(s).

If a client is served with a summons and complaint, the client generally has thirty days to respond to the complaint by filing an answer or a legal motion to dismiss some or all of the causes of action or remedies. The attorney will analyze the complaint and discuss affirmative defenses and the economics of filing motions at the “pleadings” stage.

Generally after an answer is filed, the parties will exchange written discovery. These are written requests for information, documents, and party admissions that will provide evidence to support each party’s legal and factual position in the case. Usually, after written discovery, the parties will take depositions of parties and witnesses to get further information, determine whether a person will make a good or poor witness, and to lock a person to their particular story so that they will be impeached at trial if they stray from their prior deposition testimony. The deposition gives the attorney the first opportunity to challenge the witnesses’ story.

In theory, discovery helps flush out an opponent’s position so that the attorney can be better prepared for bringing the case to trial.

Alternative Dispute Resolution:
In most counties (and specifically in Los Angeles County) the Courts set a Case Management Conference within six months from the date that the Complaint was filed. At this hearing, the Court usually orders the parties to mediation. A mediator is either randomly selected by the Court or jointly selected by the parties. The mediation is an attempt to find a mutually acceptable resolution to the dispute in an effort to avoid a third party (Judge or jury) making the decision. All parties are required to participate and attend the mediation.

Trial Preparation:
If the lawsuit does not settle at mediation, the attorney must then begin preparing the case for trial. At this stage, expert witnesses are selected and designated. Experts get deposed to determine their expected testimony at trial. Pre-trial motions are made, which may include a summary judgment motion (judgment on undisputed evidence) and motions in limine (to limit trial testimony, issues, evidence, etc.)

The trial date is suppose to take place within 12-18 months from the date that the lawsuit was filed. Many cases settle prior to trial. When a case does not settle, the parties have the right to have a jury trial or a Judge trial. A jury trial is much more expensive endeavor than a Judge trial. Jury fees need to be posted in advance. Also, the trial moves much slower with a jury, and jury selection can be time consuming. A two-day Judge trial often translates to a five-day jury trial. A party must win at least 9 votes in a civil trial to win a judgment by jury. There are pros and cons to whether a jury or Judge trial is the correct choice for a client. The attorney will discuss these issues with the client so that the client can make an informed choice.

Post-Trial Matters:
After the trial, there will be a judgment generally in favor of one party or the other. There may be post-judgment motions to be made. A Judgment may be appealed, but enforcement of the Judgment will not be stayed unless the losing party posts a bond for the Judgment amount.

If there is a monetary Judgment and no appeal made, the winning party must then take efforts to collect the Judgment. This can be done by recording the lien to attach a party’s real property. This can also be done by levying on a party’s assets, bank accounts, or wages.

Many Judgments can be collected rather easily, if not voluntarily. Other Judgments are simply uncollectable, as a losing party may not have any attachable assets. The attorney can advise you on the methods that should be taken to collect on any such Judgment.