A civil case is a private dispute between two or more parties. The following is an outline of the steps one may take if a civil action is filed in a California superior court.
The plaintiff has his or her attorney prepare a document called a complaint. The complaint states what the dispute is about, why the defendant is responsible, and asks the court to take a stated action, such as awarding damages. The complaint, along with a summons, is delivered to the party the action has been filed against. A summons is a written order stating that a defendant must answer the plaintiff’s complaint. There are requirements for serving a summons. The party served is the defendant. The defendant has a specific period of time to respond to the complaint. This written response is an answer. The answer admits or denies allegations in the complaint, states any defenses to the plaintiff’s complaint, and asks the court to decide in favor of the defendant. The defendant also may state claims he or she has against the plaintiff. Any claim by the defendant against the plaintiff is a cross-complaint. The plaintiff must respond to the defendant’s cross-complaint. If the defendant does not respond to the complaint, the plaintiff can win the case by default. The complaint, answer, and any cross-complaints are called the pleadings. If it appears that based on all the information presented, one side clearly has the advantage, that side often will file a motion for summary judgment, which requests that the judge rule in favor of the moving party if the judge decides that there is no triable issue of fact. At this same time one party may file a motion to dismiss the case. There are a number of grounds on which a party may move to dismiss a case. For example, a party may claim
the court does not have jurisdiction, or that the action was brought too late under the statute of limitations. Statutes of limitation vary in length depending on the type of case.
There are several more steps that may be taken by the parties or the court before a case goes to trial. To assist the parties in preparing their cases and learning about the other side’s case, a process called discovery occurs. During discovery, each side may ask the other to answer written questions (interrogatories), provide copies of documents, or answer questions orally under oath (deposition). A deposition usually is held in an attorney’s office and recorded by a stenographer. A deposition can be used to impeach a witness during the trial if testimony at trial is different from the testimony given at the deposition. Each side also may make motions to the court asking it to settle legal questions that arise. Most civil cases filed in California state courts are settled without ever going to trial. Instead of facing a trial many civil litigants and their attorneys consider the possibility of settling a lawsuit through a process known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR). If a settlement is not arranged during the pretrial process, the parties proceed to trial.