Although the rules and procedures may deviate some, the basic civil litigation process is similar in most jurisdictions. The first step in the civil litigation process is for the plaintiff, or person alleging an injury or seeking redress, to file a petition or complaint with the appropriate court. The complaint is then served on the defendant, who is given an opportunity to respond by filing an answer. Discovery is then completed by both sides. If the parties are unable to reach an out-of-court resolution, then the case will proceed to trial at that point.
A complaint, or petition, and summons are usually the first documents prepared in the civil litigation process. The complaint sets out what the plaintiff's allegations are against the defendant and what relief the plaintiff is seeking. For instance, in a personal injury accident case, the complaint might allege that the defendant operated his or her vehicle in a negligent manner causing the plaintiff's injuries and asking for monetary damages. The summons is the document that informs the defendant that he or she is being sued and tells him or her how long he or she has to answer the complaint and when to appear in court, if applicable.
The complaint and summons must then be filed with the court as the next step in the civil litigation process and served on the defendant. The defendant will then have a statutorily determined amount of time within which to respond to the complaint by filing an answer with the court. If the defendant fails to file an answer, then the plaintiff may file a motion for default judgment. The defendant's answer must include a response to each allegation in the plaintiff's complaint, as well as set forth any affirmative defenses that the defendant may have.
Once the defendant has answered the complaint, the parties will engage in discovery. Discovery is the stage in the civil litigation process when both sides exchange documents and evidence, and respond to relevant questions prior to trial. Information obtained during the discovery stage of civil litigation will help both sides prepare for trial and may lead to an out-of-court settlement that allows both sides to avoid trial.
The final stage in the civil litigation process is trial. A civil trial may be decided by a judge or a jury, depending on the jurisdiction and the preference of the parties to the litigation. At trial, a verdict will be reached as to whether the defendant is liable or not for the plaintiff's alleged injuries. If the defendant is held liable, then a monetary award is generally awarded to the plaintiff.