Understanding a Lawsuit from A to Z

Personal Injury

By David Carnes, Staff Writer

A lawsuit is a complex, detail-oriented civil action that proceeds in many successive phases. All personal injury cases are filed as civil actions. The first step in filing a lawsuit, of course, is to hire an experienced civil litigation lawyer. It can help, however, to gain a basic understanding of how lawsuits work before hiring a lawyer.

The Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations establishes the deadline for filing a lawsuit. If you try to file a lawsuit after the deadline expires, the court will throw out your claim. Each state has statutes of limitations for different types of cases and the deadlines range from one year (personal injury in Kentucky) to ten years (breach of contract in Louisiana).

Jurisdiction and Choice of Law

You must file a lawsuit with the appropriate court. In a civil lawsuit, the court with jurisdiction over the defendant’s residence is usually appropriate, as is the court with jurisdiction over the event that gave rise to the lawsuit. Remember that local law usually applies. If you are from Ohio and get into a car accident in Florida with a defendant who lives in New York, Florida car accident law will probably apply, even if you sue the defendant in New York.

Filing a Complaint

To initiate a lawsuit, you must file a formal written Complaint with the appropriate court and pay a filing fee. The Complaint must be in proper form and must include information such as the identity of the defendant, a description of the event or circumstance (such as a car accident) that prompted the lawsuit, and what type of relief you are asking for (such as money damages). Once the court accepts your Complaint, you become the plaintiff and the other party becomes the defendant.

Service of Process

Service of process is the procedure by which the defendant is presented with a Summons, containing a court date and information about the lawsuit, and a copy of your Complaint. Process is normally served in person by an officer of the state.

Answer/Motion to Dismiss

After process has been served on the defendant, the defendant will have a certain period of time (such as 30 days) to file either a formal written Answer or a Motion to Dismiss, either of which will be served on you. The defendant may also demand a jury trial. If an Answer is filed or a Motion to Dismiss is denied, the case proceeds normally. If a Motion to Dismiss is granted (if the judge decides your claim was frivolous, for example), the judge will dismiss your lawsuit.


“Discovery” is the process whereby each side obtains evidence from the other side or, in some cases, third parties. You might, for example, depose the defendant under oath, submit written interrogatories which the defendant must answer (although the defendant may object to some questions), or demand that the defendant produce certain business records (which also may be objected to). The court has the power to compel the parties (or even third parties) to comply with discovery requests. Note that the defendant may also depose you and other witnesses as well as submit interrogatories or demand that you produce documents that are relevant to the case.

Motion for Summary Judgment

After the discovery process is completed, the defendant may motion (ask) the court to issue a summary judgment in the defendant’s favor. A court may grant this motion if the discovery process has failed to yield enough evidence to leave you with a plausible claim. The standard for evaluating a Motion for Summary Judgment is that the court must assume consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the opposing party and determine whether the evidence could plausibly be enough to establish your claim. If a Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, you lose the case.


Trials can be in front of a jury or just in front of the judge. The judge (sometimes referred to as “the court”) will determine all procedural questions. In a jury trial, the jury is the finder of fact. (The finder of fact will determine whether the facts presented support the claims of the plaintiff or the defenses presented by the defendant. In a trial without a jury, the judge will decide with the evidence supports the case.) The court will schedule one or more hearings to allow the parties to make opening statements to the court and/or the jury, examine and cross-examine witnesses, submit evidence and present closing arguments. In a jury trial, the jury will issue findings of fact on each claim and will announce a verdict. Then, the court will issue a judgment, either at the last hearing or some time thereafter.


Even if you win money damages from the defendant, the damages award will not enforce itself. If the defendant refuses to pay, you will have to go to court again to ask the court to enforce the judgment by, for example, freezing the defendant’s bank account and ordering the bank you pay you the amount of the judgment.

Representing yourself in a lawsuit is generally not a good idea, except for minor claims that can be resolved in Small Claims Court. A good lawyer can not only help you win your lawsuit, he can also help you maximize your damages.

Add new comment