Civil Court Cases
A civil court case is when the United States government settles disputes between two people or entities that cannot come to an agreement on their own.
As part of our judiciary system, and according to the 7th Amendment, of the United States Constitution, every American is guaranteed the right to sue another person or entity for damages or loss caused to them through the other person’s actions. When this occurs, it is called a civil lawsuit. The person initiating the lawsuit is called a plaintiff. The person being sued and filed upon is called the defendant.
In civil court cases, you are not entitled to free legal representation, and if you are sued or doing the suing, you must hire a private attorney to handle your case. There may be some legal aid resources in your area, but it depends on a lot of factors. If you receive legal assistance for free, then the lawyer has performed the work “pro bono,” without pay. If you or the other party represents themselves in the lawsuit, this is referred to as “pro se.”
Types of Civil Cases
There are many types of civil cases, most of which take place within a district or state courthouse. Lawsuits where an employee sues an employer for non-payment of wages, or a divorce or parental custody battle are all examples of cases that would take place in a district court.
Some types of civil suits need to be handled by the federal court system. Those which violate a person’s rights or involves a federal law and its application to the situation, would be sent to the supreme court. A few examples of these types of cases would be:
- Suing for civil rights violations or discrimination of some type.
- Suing for first amendment violations of free speech, free expression or religion, etc.
- Suing people for a loss, they caused, if they are from another state.
Another interesting type of civil case is a class-action lawsuit where a group of people or attorneys representing a group of individuals sue a company for damages due to a product or service that did not perform as expected or was sold under pretenses.
To begin the process of suing someone, you must visit the courthouse that has jurisdiction over your geographical area and then files a complaint and pays the appropriate fee. Once filed, the court will serve a copy of this complaint on the other party. The complaint is very detailed explaining the situation, the injury or damages incurred, and what the plaintiff wants as a result. Sometimes the plaintiff seeks monetary compensation for the issue and other times they may just want the action performed by the defendant, that caused the harm stopped.
The next step of a civil suit is called “discovery” where both sides gather evidence to support their argument. Discovery may include finding and interviewing witnesses and sharing documents between each side and the courthouse. As the evidence piles up, the attorney for each side can file motions to disallow specific evidence or disagree with how it was obtained and have it removed from the file.
Witness depositions are also taken and prepared during this phase of the trial. Witnesses are under oath and must answer a series of questions honestly. This interview is then documented for all sides to review. This process is performed in front of a judge, with a court reporter transcribing the interview. The final document that comes out of a deposition is called a transcript.
Sometimes before the issue gets to the point of the actual trial, one side will decide to “settle.” This settlement occurs when both sides come to an agreement which is satisfactory to all parties. Due to the cost and time component of a trial, courts encourage the use of mediation, arbitration and other forms of dispute resolution to peacefully come to an agreement and put the matter to rest.
If a settlement is not possible, then the judge will schedule a trial. Either side is entitled by the U.S. Constitution to request a jury trial, but if neither side does, then the judge can hear the case and rule themselves.
During the trial, the judge has to confine the evidence to specific rules and maintain conduct within the courtroom. For example, if a witness talks about something they overheard, it must be dismissed as “hearsay” rather than first-hand account of the events. The process is detailed, and the judge must stay alert at all times to keep everything running smoothly and legally sound.
The court-appointed reporter keeps a record of everything that occurs within the courtroom during the case. There is a deputy clerk who keeps track of witnesses who testify, all the documents, and evidence for the case.
During testimony and cross-examination, either attorney can “object” to something a witness says or a piece of evidence they want removed from the trial. The judge rules on each of these objections and either supports it called “sustaining” or rejects it called “overruling.”
The trial process can be lengthy or short until all evidence is presented and all witnesses have been called to testify and cross-examined.
After all the evidence is presented, and testimonies are given, each side’s lawyer will give a closing argument to summarize their side and their beliefs about the situation.
If it is a jury trial, the judge will then instruct the jury on how to use the information they were given and how to come to an agreement on specifics of the outcome. Generally, this is about determining whether the defendant did harm the plaintiff in some way and if guilty, what damages or monetary compensation is the plaintiff entitle to.
If the case is held without a jury, it is referred to as a “bench trial.” In this case, the judge alone will determine the validity of the accusations and what compensation is due for restitution.