Civil Cases

GUIDE TO READING

Main idea

Civil lawsuits go through a legal process before reaching trial or settlement.

Key Terms plaintiff, defendant, injunction, complaint, summons

Reading Strategy Sequencing Events Use a graphic organizer like the one below to show the steps In a civil lawsuit.

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■ What are the various types of civil law? • What are the steps in a civil lawsuit?

v- - ^Americans in Action

In November 2000. residents of Palm Beach County in Florida filed a civil lawsuit against the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, claiming their civil rights had been violated. The suit sought damages totaling $250.000 for stripping the right to vote from several American citizens. The plaintiffs claimed that the ballot format was misleading and deceptive, causing them to cast votes for candidates other than the candidate for whom they intended to vote. This civil suit and others like It brought wide media attention because the outcome of the presidential election of 2000 was at stake.

A disputed election

Types of Civil Lawsuits

The civil cases filed over the election in Florida led to a recounting of votes and reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's ruling eventually led to George \X' Bush winning the presidency. In civil cases the plaintii—the party-bringing a lawsuit—claims to have suffered a loss and usually seeks damages, an award of money from the defendant. The defendant—the party being sued—argues either that the loss did not occur or that the defendant is not responsible for it. The court's job is to provide a place to resolve the differences between the plaintiff and the defendant. Lawsuits involving damages of a few thousand dollars or less are often handled in a small claims courts and the people involved may act as their own attorneys. Lawsuits involving more money, however, often require lawyers and juries in larger civil courts.

The American judicial system hears many different kinds of civil lawsuits. Lawsuits may involve property disputes, breach of contract, or family matters, such as divorce. Many lawsuits deal with negligence, or personal injury. A negligence suit is filed when a person has been injured or killed or when property has been destroyed because someone else has been careless or negligent.

Suits In Equity

I A special type of lawsuit is a suic in equity. 3 Equity is a system of rules by which disputes ? are resolved on the grounds of fairness. In this type of suit, a person or group seeks fair treatment in a situation where there is no existing law to help decide the matter. Often, people bring suits in equity to prevent a damaging action from taking place. An equity court could require an action to stop a wrong before ic occurred. For instance.* a group of Americans could file a suit in equity to try to prevent their state from building a highway through a local park.

A judge, not a jury, usually decides suits in equity. When deciding such a suit, the judge may issue an injunction, which is a court order commanding a person or group to stop a certain action. For example, in the case just mentioned, a judge might issue an injunction to stop construction of the highway.

Identifying What do civil lawsuits usually involve?

What Happens in a Civil Case?

We will use an imaginary case to follow the steps of a civil lawsuit. Imagine that you have slipped on a neighbor's icy sidewalk and suffered a broken wrist. You feel that your neighbor should have cleared the sidewalk of snow and ice to keep it safe, and in failing to do so, you believe he is responsible for your injury. You want your neighbor to pay you for the costs of your medical care and lose time ac work, as well as to compensate you in cash for your pain and suffering. You decide to sue your neighbor.

Bringing Suit

You start the process by hiring a lawyer, who files a complaint with the proper court.The complaint is a formal statement naming the plaintiff and the defendant and describing the nature of the lawsuit, 'llic court then sends the defendant a summons, a document telling him of the suit against him and ordering him to appear in court on a given date and time.

Civil Cases Lawsuits involving major sums of money often go to civil court where they are heard by a jury. What is the first step in filing a civil lawsuit?

Civil case Procedure fX) Plaintiff s attornwy fllus «1 complaint.

IMuidant's attorney liles a written fX) Plaintiff s attornwy fllus «1 complaint.

§ Ci-urt tilvt'S a verdict.

Evaluating Charts jl.

Each year an enormous number of civil suits are filed in American courts. When does each side exchange the pleadings documents?

The Defendant's Response

The defendant may respond to the charges by having his own attorney file an "answer" to the complaint. The answer will either admit to the charges or olfer reasons why the defendant is not responsible for the injuries that the plaintiff is claiming. The complaint and the answer together are referred to as pleadings.

Before going to trial, the lawyers on each side have an opportunity to check facts and gather evidence by questioning the other party and possible witnesses.This process is called discovery» The purpose of the discovery phase is for each side to try to avoid any surprises at the trial.

Pretrial Discussions

'the judge appointed to hear the ease might call a pretrial conference with both

/ parties to help clarify differences between the two sides and prepare for the trial. At this stage you and your lawyer might come to the conclusion that your case looks weak, and you may decide to drop the suit.

On the other hand, your neighbor and his lawyer may concludc that your ease is very strong and that you are likely to win your suit. They may, therefore, offer you a settlement. Uhis is similar to the plea bargaining process in criminal cases, except that the parties usually agree on an amount of money that the defendant will pay to the plaintiff.

Another way to resolve disputes is by a process callcd mediation* in which each side explains its side of the dispute and must listen to the other side. A trained mediator leads the discussions, acting as a neutral party to keep communications open. The mediator does not decide the issue; instead the two sides dccidc the issue with the mediator's help. The two sides may also agree to submit their dispute to arbitration. Arbitration is a process conducted by a professional arbitrator who acts somewhat like a judge by reviewing the case and resolving the dispute. The arbitrator's decision is usually binding on all parties.

Either party in a lawsuit may propose a settlement at any time. This often happens during the discovery phase as coscs begin to build up and people become more willing to compromise. Aiost civil cases are settled before trial for several reasons. First* the outcomes of many trials are hard to predict, and parties prefer the certainty of a negotiated outcome. Also, most courts have a large backlog of waiting cases so it may be years before a new case finally comes to trial, Finally, because trials are time-consuming and expensive, all the major participants the defendant, the insurer, the plaintiff, the judge, and the attorneys— are likely to prefer a settlement.

(4) Attorneys for both sides exchange pleadlnp.s documents.

(|) Attorneys for plaintiff and defendant argue case in court.

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