THE LEGAL PROCESS IN A NUTSHELL
I. The Complaint
A lawsuit begins with the filing of a “complaint.” A complaint is a legal document that sets forth the facts (or “allegations”) for the basis of the lawsuit. The complaint also sets forth the cause(s) of action that serve as the basis for the recovery.
The person who brings the civil lawsuit is called the “plaintiff,” and the person against whom the lawsuit is brought is called the “defendant.” More than one plaintiff may join together in filing a complaint, and a plaintiff or plaintiffs may file
a lawsuit against more than one defendant.
In many cases, a plaintiff’s attorney will initiate the lawsuit by filing the complaint in the appropriate “circuit court” of a county in West Virginia. Sometimes, an attorney may file the complaint in federal court. Regardless of where a plaintiff files the complaint, however, similar procedures usually follow.
II. The Answer
After the plaintiff files her/his complaint, the attorney must serve the complaint on the defendant(s). “Service” is a term of art, and proper legal service requires that the plaintiff makes sure that the defendant knows about the lawsuit. Assuming that the plaintiff properly serves the defendant, the defendant must then file an “answer” to the complaint within a certain time.
In an answer, the defendant must respond to the facts (allegations). If a defendant denies various facts, then those facts are “contested.” As you might expect, most cases filed in court involve “contested” facts and/or law.
III. Scheduling Order
After the defendant has answered the complaint, the court will usually enter what is called a “scheduling order.” The scheduling order sets the time for trial and outlines how long the parties have to develop their cases.
Development of the parties' cases is often referred to as “discovery.” Discovery takes time, and may sometimes take a year or more in complex cases. The lawyers will gather evidence and will take “depositions” of clients and other parties.
A deposition involves taking a person’s testimony under oath and it is recorded by either a court reporter and/or a videographer. The person who testifies in a deposition is called the “deponent” and the lawyer(s) question the deponent about various aspects of the case.
Discovery also usually involves written interrogatories and requests for production. As a litigant, you will usually have to answer various written questions, and you will often have to produce documents that you have that relate to your case.
After discovery ends, the court will hold a hearing to determine what issues may require a trial. Each side will often file “motions” requesting the court to allow/disallow certain evidence, and the court will need to rule on these motions before trial. Some courts require the parties to mediate the case to see if they can settle the matter without a trial. If the parties cannot reach a settlement, then the judge will meet with the lawyers for both sides at the pre-trial to prepare for the trial.
When the parties cannot reach a resolution of the case and the court finds that the contested issues require it, a trial happens. Each side has an opportunity to call witnesses and submit exhibits (documents and other evidence) in support of his/her case (or defense for a defendant). A trial may require as little as a day or as much as several weeks to complete. At the end of the trial, a jury will usually decide the case based on instructions from the court.
A trial does not always end the case. If a party loses, that party may file an “appeal” challenging the court’s and/or jury’s decision. In most cases filed in circuit courts in West Virginia, the party not satisfied with the ruling will file an appeal with the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The appeal process can often take several months or more depending on the circumstances.
If you have not participated in legal proceedings, you may have concerns or questions about the process. Although we are always happy to answer any questions you may have, we hope the following will explain how a lawsuit works.
At the Law Office of Hoyt Glazer, PLLC, we will work with you during the litigation process, and we will always communicate with you about your case.