by Jay Girvin, Esq., Girvin & Ferlazzo. P.C.,Albany, New York
Q. What are the basic steps involved in the litigation of a civil case?
The New York State court system provides an orderly process for the adjudication of civil disputes between parties. All sorts of civil claims may be the subject of litigation — personal injury lawsuits, breach of contract actions and other commercial claims, real property disputes, civil rights actions, and a host of other claims arising under statute or common law. While the nature of the claims may be different from case to case, most civil cases filed in the New York Supreme Court follow the same basic path from beginning to conclusion.
A civil lawsuit is initiated by the filing of a written complaint by the plaintiff party. The complaint, which is typically organized by numbered paragraphs, must identify the defendant party or parties, set forth the factual and/or legal allegations on which the plaintiff’s claim is based and, in most cases, state the specific relief that the plaintiff is seeking. At this stage, the plaintiff need not offer evidence or proof in support of his or her allegations; the complaint will be sufficient as long as the allegations, if assumed to be true, would support the defendant party being held legally liable for the relief demanded.
After the plaintiff serves the complaint on the defendant, the defendant must serve an answer to the complaint that either admits or denies (or in some cases, denies sufficient information to either admit or deny) each of the allegations in the complaint, and that includes any specific defenses (for example, that the lawsuit was filed untimely beyond the applicable statute of limitations).
Following service of the answer, the case enters the discovery phase during which each party is entitled to obtain information from the other concerning the claims and defenses being raised. Discovery generally involves both written demands and responses exchanged between the parties, as well as depositions of persons who may have information pertinent to the case. Written discovery may involve, for example, requesting that the other party identify and produce documents, photographs, or videos relevant to the issues in dispute. Depositions permit the attorneys to question, under oath, both parties to the lawsuit and nonparty witnesses who may have knowledge about the facts at issue. Broadly speaking, the purpose of discovery is to give both parties the opportunity to learn, in advance, of all relevant and material evidence and other information that may be offered at trial. Depending on the complexity of the case, the discovery phase may take many months to complete.
At various stages, the parties may also file one or more motions with the court. A motion is a written request that the court grant some type of specific relief to which the moving party believes it is entitled. For example, if one party refuses to disclose in discovery certain information that the other party believes should be disclosed, the dispute can be submitted to the court by motion for resolution. Other motions may seek an early termination of the case prior to trial. If the defendant party, for example, believes that the facts alleged in the complaint (even if accepted as true) fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted to the plaintiff, the defendant may file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Another common motion is a motion for summary judgment where one party (or occasionally both) claims that there are no disputed material facts that would require a trial and that the court may accordingly enter judgment in favor of the moving party as a matter of law. Motion practice is itself subject to its own procedure, with one party typically serving its written motion, the other party afforded a period of time to submit a written response, and the original moving allowed to submit a final reply. Once all the motion papers are submitted, it may take several weeks or months for the court to issue a decision.
Assuming the lawsuit has not been otherwise resolved, once the discovery phase is complete and all motions decided, the case will be scheduled for trial, typically before a jury. Each side may introduce admissible evidence, through either witness testimony or documents. Upon the evidence presented, the jury will render a decision in favor of one party or the other based on both its factual findings and the law as stated in the jury instructions provided by the court. The case, however, may not necessarily be over — either party may pursue an appeal to the appellate court from an unfavorable outcome.
Not every civil case, of course, follows the litigation process through trial. The parties are free to resolve the case by settlement at any time, and most civil cases end up being settled prior to trial. The high percentage of cases that settle prior to trial is not only a reflection of the uncertainty inherent in having a jury decide the dispute, but also a reflection of the fact that litigation through trial (and a potential appeal) can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition for both parties.