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Litigation Roadmap: The Typical Phases of a Civil Case

Although most people are familiar with the idea of a civil lawsuit, those who haven’t been party to one may not have a clear idea of how a civil case unfolds. Civil matters typically follow a similar path and understanding that path can be helpful for those considering bringing a suit, or for those on the receiving end of a suit. Of course, every case is different, so keep in mind that exceptions to this process may happen. What follows is a simple litigation roadmap.

Initial Pleadings

A civil litigation case begins with the plaintiff’s complaint. This complaint will specify the claims or alleged wrongdoings against one or more parties (defendants).The case is usually initiated when the plaintiff files their complaint with the Court. Then, the complaint must be personally served upon the defendant. Next, a defendant has the opportunity to respond to the allegations. If the defendant denies the allegations in the complaint, the case can then move to the next phase. They may also bring claims of their own against the plaintiff(counterclaims), to which the plaintiff then has the opportunity to respond.

Discovery

The next stage of a litigation case involves what is called discovery. In discovery, attorneys and investigators gather facts that could either prove or disprove the legal issues at hand. Discovery can entail many different types of methods, such as interrogatories, requests for production, and requests for admissions, to name just a few. This is also the phase of the case in which depositions maybe held.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)/ Settlement Efforts

In some cases, the Court may order that the parties participate in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), such as mediation. In other cases, the parties may choose this option. The goal of ADR is to resolve some or all of the issues at hand. If the parties reach an agreement, they can present their agreed-upon terms to the court and ask that the court order accordingly. Even if ADR is not used, the parties and their attorneys may exchange settlement offers among themselves and could similarly resolve the case by reaching an agreement. These settlement efforts may take place at any point in the case.

Trial Preparation

Once the discovery period has ended, and if resolution has not been reached, the parties now may prepare for trial. In this stage, the parties take the facts that they gathered during discovery and shape the evidence so that they can present it to a judge or jury at trial. There are many documents and plans that must be developed during this stage, such as preparing a witness list, preparing witness questions that conform to the rules of evidence, preparing jury instructions, and developing demonstrative aids and other exhibits to be used during the trial, for example.

Motions

Between the time the case begins and the trial, there are numerous types of motions that may be brought by different parties. These motions request, or “move” the Judge to take certain actions or make certain rulings about the case. For example, a defendant may file a Motion to Dismiss, arguing that the case does not have legal merit to move forward, and asking the Judge to dismiss it. Parties also may move the court to make orders regarding other parties’ actions during the pendency of the case. These motions may be decided with or without a hearing.

Trial

The trial may take place in front of a Judge only, or before a jury, depending upon whether either party has requested a jury trial earlier in the matter. During trial, each side will present an opening argument, call and question their own witnesses, cross-examine the other side’s witnesses, and present their evidence. The judge or jury will then deliberate and decide if the plaintiff has proven the claims of the case. The decision of the judge or jury is called the final verdict.

Appeal

After the verdict, the losing party may appeal the case to the Colorado appellate court. At the appellate court, there will not be any witnesses. Instead, the attorneys will have a few minutes to present an argument to a panel of judges. This is called oral argument. From there, the appellate panel of judges will review the case and decide if the lower court made any errors during the trial. While there is really no such thing as a “typical” case, many civil suits will include these phases.