A lawsuit is a civil action brought in a court of law in which a plaintiff, a party who claims to have incurred loss as a result of a defendant's actions, demands a legal or equitable remedy. The defendant is required to respond to the plaintiff's complaint. If the plaintiff is successful, judgment is in the plaintiff's favor, and a variety of court orders may be issued to enforce a right, award damages, or impose a temporary or permanent injunction to prevent an act or compel an act. A declaratory judgment may be issued to prevent future legal disputes.
A lawsuit may involve dispute resolution of private law issues between individuals, business entities or non-profit organizations. A lawsuit may also enable the state to be treated as if it were a private party in a civil case, as plaintiff, or defendant regarding an injury, or may provide the state with a civil cause of action to enforce certain laws.
The conduct of a lawsuit is called litigation. The plaintiffs and defendants are called litigants and the attorneys representing them are called litigators.
A lawsuit begins when a complaint is filed with the court. This complaint states that one or more plaintiffs seeks damages from one or more stated defendants, and identifies the legal and factual bases for doing so. It is important that the plaintiff selects the proper venue with the proper jurisdiction to bring his lawsuit. The clerk of a court signs or stamps the court seal upon a summons, which is then served by the plaintiff to the defendant, together with a copy of the complaint. This service notifies the defendants that they are being sued and that they have a specific time limit to file a response. By providing a copy of the complaint, the service also notifies the defendants of the nature of the claims. Once the defendants are served with the summons and complaint, they are subject to a time limit to file an answer stating their defenses to the plaintiff's claims, including any challenges to the court's jurisdiction, and any counterclaims they wish to assert against the plaintiff.
If the defendant chooses to file an answer (Grounds of Defense) within the time permitted, the answer must address each of the plaintiffs' allegations (Bill of Particulars) by admitting the allegation, denying it, or pleading a lack of sufficient information to admit or deny the allegation. Some jurisdictions still authorize general denials of each and every allegation in the complaint. At the time the defendant files an answer, the defendant also raises all "affirmative" defenses. The defendant may also assert counterclaims for damages or equitable relief against the plaintiff, and in the case of "compulsory counterclaims," must do so or risk having the counterclaim barred in any subsequent proceeding. The defendant may also file a "third party complaint" seeking to join another party or parties in the action in the belief that those parties may be liable for some or all of the plaintiff's claimed damages. Filing an answer "joins the cause" and moves the case into the pre-trial phase.
The early stages of the lawsuit may involve initial disclosures of evidence by each party and discovery, which is the structured exchange of evidence and statements between the parties. Discovery is meant to eliminate surprises and clarify what the lawsuit is about, and to make the parties realize they should settle or drop frivolous claims and defenses. At this point the parties may also engage in pretrial motions to exclude or include particular legal or factual issues before trial.
At the close of discovery, the parties may either pick a jury and then have a trial by jury or the case may proceed as a bench trial heard only by the judge if the parties waive a jury trial or if the right to a jury trial is not guaranteed for their particular claim or for any lawsuits within their jurisdiction.
At trial, each person presents witnesses and enters evidence into the record, at the close of which the judge or jury renders their decision. Generally speaking, the plaintiff has the burden of proof in making his claims. The defendant may have the burden of proof on other issues, however, such as affirmative defenses. The attorneys will devise a trial strategy that ensures they meet the necessary elements of their case or (when the opposing party has the burden of proof) to ensure the opponent will not be able to meet his or her burden.
There are numerous motions that either party can file throughout the lawsuit to terminate it "prematurely" before submission to the judge or jury for final consideration. These motions attempt to persuade the judge, through legal argument and sometimes accompanying evidence, that because there is no reasonable way that the other party could legally win, there is no sense in continuing with the trial. Motions for summary judgment, for example, can usually be brought before, after, or during the actual presentation of the case. Motions can also be brought after the close of a trial to undo a jury verdict contrary to law or against the weight of the evidence, or to convince the judge to change the decision or grant a new trial.
Also, at any time during this process from the filing of the complaint to the final judgment, the plaintiff may withdraw the complaint and end the whole matter, or the defendant may agree to a settlement. If the case settles, the parties might choose to enter into a stipulated judgment with the settlement agreement attached, or the plaintiff may simply file a voluntary dismissal, so that the settlement agreement is never entered into the court record.
After a final decision has been made, either party or both may appeal from the judgment if they believe there had been a procedural error made by the trial court. Even the prevailing party may appeal, if, for example, they wanted a larger award than was granted. The appellate court (which may be structured as an intermediate appellate court) and/or a higher court then affirms the judgment, declines to hear it (which effectively affirms it), reversesor vacates and remands, which involves sending the lawsuit back to the lower trial court to address an unresolved issue, or possibly for a whole new trial. Some lawsuits go up and down the appeals ladder repeatedly before finally resolution.
When a final judgment is entered, the plaintiff is usually barred under the doctrine of res judicata from trying to bring the same or similar claim again against that defendant, or from relitigating any of the issues, even under different legal claims or theories. This prevents a new trial of the same case with a different result, or if the plaintiff won, a repeat trial that merely multiplies the judgment against the defendant.
If the judgment is for the plaintiff, then the defendant must comply under penalty of law with the judgment, which is usually a monetary award. If the defendant fails to pay, the court has various powers to seize any of the defendant's assets located within its jurisdiction, such as:
If all assets are located elsewhere, the plaintiff must file another suit in the appropriate court to seek enforcement of the other court's previous judgment. This can be a difficult task when crossing from a court in one state or nation to another, though courts tend to grant each other respect when there is not a clear legal rule to the contrary. A defendant who has no assets in any jurisdiction is said to be "judgment-proof." The term is generally a colloquialism to describe an impecunious defendant.
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