Florida civil litigation lawsuit procedure
Florida civil litigation is when one individual or business entity sues another. In a civil litigation case, the plaintiff sues the defendant to recoup damages done to them, usually through monetary damages or awards. Your attorney should help you understand exactly how your litigation timeline will fit with this chronology. Remember: your attorney works for you, and should clearly explain every step of the legal process.
- A civil action (as opposed to a criminal or family proceeding, for example) begins with a Complaint, usually accompanied by a Summons. A Complaint is a legal document that lays out the claims that the Plaintiff (the person or business bringing the lawsuit) has against the Defendant (the person or business being sued). Typically, a lawyer will prepare this document.
- A civil action is officially commenced in one of two ways. In some states and in federal court, filing the Summons and Complaint with the court commences the action. In many states, serving the Summons and Complaint on the other party commences the action. Some jurisdictions prohibit Plaintiffs from serving the documents themselves. In jurisdictions where an action is commenced by service, the action can go on for a long time before the court ever becomes involved.
- The Defendant has to answer within a certain time (usually about three weeks). The Answer says what portions of the Complaint, if any, the defendant admits to, what the Defendant contests, what defenses the Defendant may have, and whether the Defendant has claims against the Plaintiff or any other party.
- If the Defendant doesn’t answer the Complaint, the court may enter a default judgment against the Defendant. If the Answer contains a counterclaim or a third-party complaint, the party against whom that claim is made also has to answer within a certain time.
- The parties exchange documents and other information about the issues relevant to the litigation, by a process called Discovery. Discovery can take three forms: written questions (usually Interrogatories) which must be answered under oath; document production; and Depositions. Depositions are formally transcribed and sworn statements taken in front of a court reporter or other court officer. The information is used in preparing the case for trial.
- If you are being called as a witness, discovery is the first of the phases during which you may get involved. Typically, third parties are involved in depositions. Although, in many jurisdictions there are provisions for written discovery and document requests to non-parties. If you do not want to be involved in discovery as a third party, and have a legally valid reason (other than just not wanting to), you should consult an attorney.
Mediation & Arbitration
- Sometimes, the parties can voluntarily resolve all their issues through alternate dispute resolution such as mediation or a negotiated settlement. The parties can also agree to binding arbitration,which some contracts (insurance and construction, for example) require. Some states and the federal system require parties in civil actions do alternative dispute resolution in some form.
Note: If a settlement is reached, the settlement agreement resolves all issues between the parties. Typically, the court is either not involved or is involved only informally. Judicial approval of civil settlements is usually only required in special circumstances that do not typically arise in litigation.
- In many cases, one or both of the parties will try to get rid of the case, or a portion of it, by motion. Basically, the parties present to the court those issues that are not in dispute, either because the parties agree as to the facts, or because application of the law to the facts dictates a result. This is a hard concept for lay people. The theory is that, if a claim or lawsuit cannot possibly win, it is better for the judge to deal with it before wasting time or money. Unfortunately, motion practice can be lengthy and expensive.
- If the parties do not reach an agreement, and if the matter is not disposed of by motion, the case will go to trial. In most civil cases, either party can choose to have a jury. The decision of whether or not to request a jury is an extremely important one, and seeking the advice of an attorney is highly recommended.
- Trial is the other point at which third parties can become involved. The attorney for the party who wants you to testify may subpoena you for trial. Rules vary between jurisdictions, but typically there are requirements for subpoenas, both in terms of form and in terms of notice and payment to you as a witness. Typically, notice and payment requirements are unrealistically small. You should consult an attorney if you cannot attend, or if (as in the case of a professional) attending will cost you a lot of money.
- At trial, the attorneys (or the parties, if they are not represented) present evidence and arguments for each side, and the judge or jury decides the unresolved issues. Once the judge or jury has reached a decision, the judge will order that Judgment be entered for the party who wins. The judge may also order that one party pay the other’s attorneys’ fees, although such awards are unusual.
- Either or both parties can appeal a judge’s decision to a higher court. However, it’s unusual for an appeals court to overturn a judge’s decision. Also, remember that settlements usually cannot be appealed if both parties agree to their terms.
The entire litigation process can take from as little as six months, to several years. Witnesses can be called to testify at any time, from shortly after the event up to a decade after.
The information above is to be used for general education purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. From our offices in Florida, our knowledgeable attorneys work closely with our network of resources located throughout the United States to resolve disputes and represent clients in litigation matters throughout the world. Contact one of our experienced U.S. litigation attorneys to set up a consultation today!