Each case is unique and can end at any point by a settlement or dismissal, but these are the main stages of any civil injury lawsuit from start to finish:
1) Pre-suit Investigation
This is the stage where the case is started by the law firm and client when they believe there is a valid lawsuit. The attorney will gather information from the client and make a decision as to whether they believe valid claims exist. The attorney will take a look at available evidence and research the law to come to this decision. In injury cases, typically the client is treating with doctors until both the client and attorney know the full extent of the client’s injuries and what their future medical needs will look like. This stage usually involves:
a. Client Interview and Contract Signing
b. Gathering of Documents related to client’s case
c. Investigation of facts surrounding client’s case
d. Legal Research on Potential Claims and Defenses
e. Injury cases – client is treating
2) Demand and Negotiation
Once the lawyer has determined what legal claims can be brought on the client’s behalf and once the client’s damages are known to the firm and the client, usually an attempt to settle a case prior to litigation will be made. This stage usually involves:
a. Demand letter sent to defendants or insurance companies representing defendants
b. Negotiation with defendants
c. Early Settlement or decision to litigate
3) Filing of Lawsuit
If pre-suit negotiations break down or are pointless, the lawyer will begin the lawsuit by filing a complaint, a document which sets forth the facts of what happened and the legal claims which have been violated by the Defendants. This stage usually involves:
a. Complaint Drafting/Filing
b. Answer or Motions by Defendants
4) Discovery Phase
This is the evidence collection phase of a case. Both parties, the plaintiffs and defendants, are able to request information from the other parties and any witnesses or involved people or companies. This phase is designed to allow both parties to be aware of all of the evidence a party has to support or defeat any claim or defense raised in a particular lawsuit. This stage usually involves:
a. Depositions – oral testimony from parties and witnesses
b. Written Discovery
c. Document Exchanges between parties
This is a formal negotiation between the parties that is required by law in almost all lawsuits. The parties meet face-to-face with an independent 3rd party person called a mediator. The mediator who favors neither the plaintiff or defendant will attempt to discuss each party’s positions in the lawsuit and their strengths and weaknesses. The mediator will then attempt to have the parties reach an agreement that will fully and finally resolve the case.
6) Summary Judgment
Sometimes in a case, usually after discovery has been completed, a party will file a summary judgment motion. This kind of motion attempts to have the judge decide the case in favor of one party or another. This type of motion can ask for a decision from the court on the whole case or just one or some of the claims in the case. In some instances, a court’s decision at this stage can end the case completely. Sometimes an appeal can occur after a decision is made by the court on a motion for summary judgment.
If no motion for summary judgment is filed or no appeal is taken from a summary judgment decision by the court, the next step is trial. 9 times out of 10 a trial has a jury, where 6 to 12 people, will hear evidence and testimony and make a decision as to who wins or loses the case. A trial can take anywhere from 1 day to months to complete. The average trial takes about 2 to 3 days to complete.
8) Verdict and Judgment
When a jury makes a decision as to who wins or loses, it issues its verdict. Judgment is entered against the losing party.
9) Post-trial Motions
If either party finds any problems with the verdict or with the way in which the trial was conducted, a party can file post trial motions to have the court correct a problem. There are many things that can happen here like a court ordering a new trial or changing the jury’s verdict.
10) Post-trial Appeals
If motions are filed after the verdict and the parties believe the court did not resolve the problems that occurred at trial or with the verdict, then a party can file an appeal to a higher court to attempt to have a different court fix the problem. Appeals themselves can often take a year or more to be decided.
11) Appellate Decision
Once an appeal has been filed, briefed, and argued an appellate court will issue a decision as to whether the trial court made the correct decisions during the case or trial. This decision can lead to an immediate end to the case or it can lead to other things happening, such as another trial. In some cases, an appellate decision can lead to another appeal to a higher court.
Each case is unique and does not necessarily involve each and every stage identified above, but any person getting involved in a lawsuit should be aware of these different stages. They should also know that there is no set time in which a lawsuit will be decided. A case can end at the demand stage and take no more than a month or two to be resolved. But, a case can also go all the way and may involve multiple appeals and trials, a process which can take up to a decade or more. No attorney can tell you exactly how long a case will take because of the many potential outcomes. The law and decisions on the law always involve human beings. As a result, no outcomes can be guaranteed.
Also, for each stage described above, there are many steps involved in each stage that could not be fully addressed here. But, now you should at least have a big picture of the phases of a typical civil injury lawsuit. It should also be mentioned that there are as many areas of law as there are aspects to life, and each area of the law may have specific steps or stages that are not found in the list above. Of course, if you have any questions about these stages or the particular steps involved in the type of case you want to know about, you should ask a lawyer who handles that particular kind of case.