Let’s be honest – the idea of going to trial in a civil lawsuit can feel pretty daunting. As someone who’s never stepped foot in a courtroom before, imagining yourself up on the witness stand or anxiously awaiting a jury verdict seems scary and stressful, to say the least. But here’s the good news – you don’t have to go through it alone. Your litigation attorney is there to guide you every step of the way as you navigate the complex legal process together.
While each case is unique with its own set of facts and challenges, most civil lawsuits tend to follow a similar roadmap from the initial filing to the moment the jury reads the verdict. Having a basic grasp of the standard stages and timeline can make the whole experience feel a lot less intimidating. So take a deep breath, grab a snack, and let’s dive into what exactly goes into preparing for trial in a civil case. The more you understand the method behind the madness, the more confident and empowered you’ll feel in working with your legal counsel to build the strongest case possible.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of trial preparation, it helps to start with a quick Civil Litigation 101 refresher.
In the simplest terms, civil law handles non-criminal disputes between individuals or organizations. For example, say you were injured in a car accident that wasn’t your fault. Or you were discriminated against at work. Or you paid for a service that was never delivered. These would all potentially be civil cases versus criminal ones.
In a civil lawsuit, the person who feels they were wronged or suffered damages (the plaintiff) files a complaint against the party responsible (the defendant). This legal complaint submitted to the court outlines what happened factually, how it harmed the plaintiff, and the relief or compensation they want to receive.
The defendant then has a chance to respond to the complaint by either admitting, denying, or explaining their side of the story. This back-and-forth exchange of documents is called pleadings. Once the key disputed facts and allegations are established through the pleadings, the pre-trial phase starts, and things get real!
During the pre-trial process, both sides investigate the evidence, take depositions, file motions, research the laws, and generally build up their strongest case. The parties may resolve the dispute through motions, settlement negotiations, or alternative resolutions all the way up until trial. But if no agreement is reached, the case will ultimately go to trial before a judge or jury who will make the final binding decision.
Alright, so that covers the basic trajectory of a civil case at 30,000 feet. Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of how litigation attorneys meticulously prepare at each phase along the way. Grab another snack and a comfy seat – we’re going deep!
The first step after a civil complaint is filed is for the attorneys on both sides to conduct thorough investigations into the facts and legal merits of the case. Plaintiffs’ attorneys will gather key documents like contracts, medical records, police reports, etc. and identify witnesses to interview. The plaintiff will work closely with their attorney to provide a detailed account of what happened, describe the damages suffered, and lay out the desired remedy or compensation.
The defendant’s attorney will also conduct in-depth interviews with their client to understand if and why they dispute the allegations. This helps the defense attorney identify weaknesses in the plaintiff’s case, as well any applicable defenses, counterclaims or third parties who may share liability. Defense counsel will collect relevant documents, research the law and investigate the plaintiff’s background and claims. Thorough initial case investigation lays the groundwork for the rest of the pre-trial process.
After the initial investigation, litigation enters the discovery phase which allows each party to request and obtain information and evidence from the other side. There are several discovery methods available:
– Interrogatories – Written questions that must be answered under oath within a specified time.
– Requests for Production – Requests for relevant documents, electronically stored information, or other tangible items.
– Requests for Admission – Written statements that a party is asked to admit or deny as true.
– Depositions – Oral testimony from a party or witness taken under oath, outside of court, with a court reporter present.
– Third Party Discovery – Seeking information from entities not directly involved in the lawsuit through subpoenas, depositions or other tools.
The scope of discovery is broad so that parties can gather evidence, eliminate surprise at trial, and evaluate their case. Attorneys use the discovery process strategically to obtain helpful evidence and pin down witness testimony while also monitoring for harmful information.
Depositions are a crucial form of discovery and trial preparation. They provide the opportunity for attorneys to interview parties and key witnesses under oath prior to trial. During a deposition, the witness answers questions posed by attorneys for both sides. A court reporter transcribes the full proceedings. Depositions accomplish several trial preparation objectives:
– Obtain beneficial admissions to support your case
– Commit witnesses to a specific account of the facts
– Assess credibility of opposing witnesses
– Explore weaknesses in the opposing party’s case
– Narrow issues by gaining stipulations on certain facts
– Gather information to form additional discovery requests
– Build foundation for impeaching witness testimony at trial
Attorneys use deposition transcripts strategically at trial to contradict or discredit witnesses who deviate from their prior sworn statements.
Many civil lawsuits require expert witnesses to analyze technical issues, interpret facts or evidence, and provide opinions that will help educate the judge or jury. Areas of expertise may include medical issues, financial damages, scientific testing, accounting methods, industry standards, etc. Expert witness testimony can significantly bolster a party’s position at trial.
During trial preparation, attorneys identify what expert assistance is needed and retain qualified experts that are credible and persuasive. Experts review case materials, conduct an analysis, prepare a report outlining opinions, and undergo deposition by opposing counsel. Although expensive, expert analysis and testimony are crucial for establishing liability, causation and damages in complex civil litigation.
Another key aspect of trial preparation involves filing motions asking the court to decide important legal issues before trial. These motions can save resources by streamlining the trial and improve strategic position. Common pretrial motions include:
– Motions in limine – Ask the court to exclude prejudicial or inadmissible evidence from being presented at trial. This prevents jurors from being unduly swayed by improper evidence.
– Dispositive motions – Seek judgment on all or part of a case without going to trial. For example, summary judgment motions argue there are no disputes of material fact requiring trial.
– Daubert motions – Challenge the admissibility and reliability of an opponent’s proposed expert testimony.
Hearings are held on substantive motions where parties present arguments and the judge issues oral or written rulings. Winning key motions can bolster leverage and reshape the entire trajectory of a case.
As trial approaches, the financial risks and costs increase substantially. This motivates many parties to engage in settlement talks and avoid trial. Settlement discussions involve assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your case, evaluating the benefits of an early resolution, determining an acceptable settlement range, and negotiating with the other side.
Settlements can happen at any point but become particularly active as trial nears. Even on the eve of trial, last minute negotiations may produce a settlement. Factors like unfavorable pretrial rulings, fear of unpredictable jury verdicts and escalating expenses tend to promote settlements.
As the trial date approaches, attorneys shift focus toward translating all their preparation into the most compelling and persuasive trial presentation possible. Key trial preparation tasks include:
– Developing a thorough trial strategy and detailed theory of the case that will resonate with the judge or jury.
– Creating a witness list and deciding who to call to support the case theory. Prepping witness testimony through practice examinations.
– Selecting exhibits to use at trial such as documents, photographs, videos, etc. Preparing exhibit lists.
– Crafting opening and closing arguments that effectively summarize the case and ask for the desired outcome.
– Anticipating issues that may arise at trial through motion in limine practice.
– Filing trial briefs explaining the applicable law and arguing key legal disputes.
– Planning logistics like coordinating witnesses, organizing exhibits, loading presentations and equipment.
Meticulous trial preparation transforms all the gathered facts, research and evidence into a cohesive story presented in the courtroom. This requires substantial planning, practice and polish.
Litigating a civil case through trial is a complex, long-term endeavor. While each case has unique aspects, most adhere to a similar trajectory. Understanding the general phases of pretrial preparation – investigation, discovery, motions, settlement talks and comprehensive trial planning – helps clients partner effectively with their attorneys and feel more empowered each step of the way. With diligent preparation guided by experienced trial counsel, plaintiffs and defendants alike can have faith they’ll get their best day in court.