Litigation is a formal process where legal disputes are resolved. People can use the civil justice system to handle issues including but not limited to personal injury claims, divorces, and contract disputes.
Civil litigation can take place in state or federal court. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure govern civil proceedings in the United States federal courts. Their purpose is “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”
The litigation process may vary slightly from state to state; however, in most civil litigation cases the process begins when a plaintiff files a claim with the court. The defendant is then served with paperwork from the court.
Both the plaintiff and defendant file motions—a request for the judge to make a legal ruling. A common pre-trial motion is a motion to compel discovery, where one party requests access to information from the other party that the other party does not want to provide. For example, one party could ask the court to require the other party to turn in financial statements. Another common motion is a motion for summary judgment, which asks the judge to find that the facts are not in dispute and that the moving party is entitled to win as a matter of law.
Assuming that the dispute is not resolved on summary judgment, dismissed by the judge, or the parties don’t otherwise settle the case, the trial takes place. During the trial, both parties call witnesses, cross-examine the witnesses, and introduce evidence. The plaintiff usually must show proof of their claims. For example, if the case is a personal injury suit, the plaintiff must prove that their claims are factually true, and that the defendant caused harm and is responsible for the plaintiff’s alleged injuries.
Finally, a judge or a jury decides the results of the case. In federal court, if the plaintiff is seeking money damages of more than $20 in most circumstances, the Constitution requires a jury trial unless both parties waive this right. If the plaintiff is seeking an injunction or another type of non-monetary remedy, a jury is not usually required. Either party can appeal the judgment if it was not in their favor, meaning they request an appeals court to reconsider the decision. If the appeals process is not successful, then the judgment is enforced.
A recent example of a civil litigation case involved actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow (the defendant) was involved in a civil personal injury lawsuit where she was accused of crashing into an optometrist, Terry Sanderson (the plaintiff) during a 2016 ski trip, causing harm to him. Sanderson sued Paltrow for $300,000 in damages, claiming he suffered a traumatic brain injury and four broken ribs. The jury ultimately ruled in Paltrow’s favor.
Arbitration is a process used to handle disputes outside of the litigation system. This form of alternative dispute resolution provides a different option to a lengthy and expensive courtroom battle. The dispute is resolved by an impartial third party—the arbitrator.
The civil litigation system was designed to address disputes with reasonable and non-speculative cases. Unfortunately, the system is now overrun with frivolous litigation. Plaintiffs’ lawyers initiate numerous class actions and mass torts as a money-making scheme. For the defendants, litigation can take years to resolve, with an expensive discovery process and a risk of high damage awards. Mass torts have gotten so big that they have a disproportionate impact on the overall legal system because they take up a disproportionate amount of judicial resources and attention.
So now you know the answer to the question what is litigation. If you want to stay up to date on similar blog posts and the latest legal reform news, subscribe to our newsletter.