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What To Expect - A Lawsuit Chronology

A lawsuit is a complicated legal process full of surprises and delays. Every action involves at least two parties, and the schedule and events can be out of your hands. Most litigation actions happen in the same order, so you can understand what will happen. It helps to know some of the words and phrases that come up in a lawsuit.

This article describes a typical timeline for civil litigation. Your case may differ based on state laws and the details of your case. Your attorney can help you understand exactly how your lawsuit will fit with this chronology. Criminal cases and specialized matters like bankruptcies have different procedures. This article outlines a "typical" lawsuit, such as a personal injury case.

Beginning the Lawsuit

A civil action begins with a complaint, usually accompanied by a summons. The complaint describes the claims that the plaintiff (the party bringing the lawsuit) brings against the defendant (the party being sued). A lawyer may prepare the document.

In most jurisdictions, the litigation process begins when you file your complaint. You have a limited time to serve the complaint on the defendant. In some states, such as Minnesota and North Dakota, you can serve the summons and complaint first and then file with the court.

In almost all jurisdictions, the plaintiff can't serve the documents personally. A person uninvolved in the lawsuit, a process server, or the county sheriff must serve the documents. Once service is complete, the person must file a Notice of Service with the court to prove the defendant received the documents.

The defendant must file an answer within a specific time. This can be from 21 to 180 days, depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the case. The answer lets the defendant disagree with the complaint, explain their defenses, and make counterclaims against the plaintiff.


If the defendant doesn't answer the complaint, the plaintiff may request a default judgment. The court may enter a default on its own or sua sponte. If the defendant answers, the case is set for trial, and several hearings are set. These pre-trial or case management hearings occur before the trial to ensure the parties are working towards an agreement.


During the discovery process, parties exchange documents and information about the issues relevant to the litigation. Discovery can take three forms:

  • Written questions (interrogatories), lists of questions the party answers under oath
  • Requests for documents, such as medical records or bank statements
  • Depositions where parties may call witnesses and question them in person

Depositions are like trials, except the judge is not present. Parties can present deposition transcripts as evidence at trial.

Deposition witnesses receive subpoenas like trial witnesses. If they aren't part of the case, they can bring their own attorneys and, in some cases, refuse to answer questions.

Settlement Negotiations

Parties may resolve their issues through other means, such as alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Mediation and arbitration can assist parties in reaching a settlement without going through litigation. Some contract disputes require binding arbitration rather than legal action, and some states prefer that parties use ADR before restoring to the courts.

If the parties reach a settlement agreement before the trial, the case ends. Judicial approval of civil settlements is only required if circumstances require court notice. Family law cases involving custody, cases with multiple parties, and cases involving minors may need a court hearing. Depending on court rules in your jurisdiction, you may need to file a Notice of Dismissal.

Motion Practice

Sometimes, parties may limit or reduce portions of a case through motions. Parties agree or "stipulate" to facts not in dispute, so they ask the court to acknowledge the facts as true. Other times, a motion asks the judge to order the other party to do something. A party files a Motion for Order when the other side is not doing what they should, like responding to requests for discovery.

Motion practice takes up much of the time between filing a case and the trial. Whenever one side files a motion, the other side has the right to respond. Usually, the opposing party has 10 days to reply, which adds another two weeks to the pre-trial period.

Trial and Appeal

If the parties don't reach an agreement, the case goes to trial. In most civil cases, either party can opt for a jury trial. A civil trial is not necessary for all civil cases. It may be more expensive and time-consuming than your case is worth. Your attorney can advise you on whether your case warrants a trial by jury.

Civil trials resemble criminal trials. The attorneys present evidence and question witnesses. The attorneys give opening statements and closing arguments to summarize the evidence. The judge or jury makes a decision on the facts in the case based on the evidence presented.

Trials are not as interesting as they appear on TV or in movies. At most, attorneys ask questions, and witnesses answer them. Sometimes, the judge may rule on a point of law or sustain or overrule an objection. Once the attorneys present all the evidence, the judge or jury gives their verdict. In some cases, the verdict may include attorneys' fees and court costs.

Appealing the Decision

Either party may appeal the verdict to the appellate court. In most states, you have a narrow window to do so, usually 10-30 days. An appeal is not a new trial. Instead, you or your attorney must object to a particular legal issue in the case or an abuse of the judge's discretion. For instance, if you felt a defendant's witness should not have testified, you can appeal on those grounds. You must have case law and state and federal laws to support your position.

You can't appeal just because you lost the case. Laypeople should not try to appeal their case on their own. Restrictions for formatting, deadlines, and responses are much stricter than in lower courts. Contact an appeals attorney if you think your verdict was incorrect.


A civil lawsuit can take time. A small claims case can take six months, and a personal injury lawsuit may last three years or more. Witnesses may receive subpoenas nearly a decade after the event at issue. In general, the more recent the case, the better chance you have at trial. If too much time has passed, it may be better to reach a settlement with the other party.

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