Anatomy of a Lawsuit

A typical lawsuit proceeds through five basic phases:

  • Pleadings
  • Discovery
  • Summary Judgment
  • Trial
  • Appeal

Each case is unique, though. These are just the five basic phases.
1. PLEADINGS At the pleadings phase, a Complaint containing all the Plaintiff’s claims is filed and then the Defendant responds by filing an Answer stating any defenses. In some circumstances, a case may be dismissed at this phase or judgment could be entered in favor of either party if appropriate.

2. DISCOVERY If the case proceeds, the next phase is discovery, where each party has the opportunity to gather facts and information needed to prove the various points of the case. The basic discovery tools include: 1) written interrogatories, or questions, which can be sent to the opposing party; 2) oral depositions, or questioning of a potential witness; 3) depositions upon written questions; requests for admission; 4) requests for production of documents or entry upon land; and 5) physical and mental examination of a party. Different methods of discovery are best suited for different purposes, but a party may use as many or as few of those discovery methods as needed. Discovery often proves time consuming and expensive; however, so duplicative or unduly burdensome discovery requests are impermissible. Many cases settle after discovery because a party lacks sufficient facts to pursue the claim further.

3. SUMMARY JUDGMENT During the next phase, summary judgment, the judge is asked to evaluate the case by looking at the pleadings as well as briefs written by each party essentially summarizing the case and setting forth reasons why that party should win. The judge also relies on information gathered by the parties during discovery as each party designates relevant evidence in the summary judgment briefs. This phase is not mandatory, but it occurs in many, if not most, cases. If a claim is dismissed at the summary judgment phase, the case will not proceed to trial. An appeal may be taken from such a dismissal at the summary judgment stage.

4. TRIAL If a case does proceed to the trial phase, meaning it has not been dismissed, has not been settled by the parties, and has not been decided on the merits at an earlier phase, a trial will be held. A case may be tried in front of a judge only or, if appropriate, in front of a jury. Trials also typically prove time consuming and financially costly.
5. APPEAL Finally, after a verdict is entered at trial, a party may be able to appeal. The appellate process varies depending on whether a suit is filed in state or federal court. In general, however, an appeal is appropriate when there is substantial evidence showing that an error occurred in the trial which changed the outcome of the case.