Civil actions follow certain rules for how a civil case is performed, with steps for each part of the process, from the beginning to the end. These rules are called the Rules of Civil Procedure. There are federal rules of civil procedures, which must be followed if the case is filed in federal court. However, most civil suits begin in state court, therefore each state has it's own set of rules of civil procedure.
There are two basic types of law: civil and criminal law. Civil actions involve a lawsuit between individuals or corporations. A civil case usually centers on a wrongdoing between the parties, and this wrongdoing is not necessarily a criminal act. A civil case can be heard before a judge, (a bench trial) or before a jury, (a jury trial).
The parties involved are the plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff is the person(s) who was wronged by the event and the defendant(s) is the alleged wrongdoer. For example, if "A" was in an automobile accident that was the result of "B" running a red light, "A" would be the plaintiff and "B" would be the defendant. Also, "B's" automobile insurance may be a party defendant.
To begin the process of a civil suit, the plaintiff must file the initial pleadings which include a summons and complaint, with the clerk of court for the county in which the action is brought. The county chosen is usually the county in which the wrongdoing took place.
After filing the initial pleading, each defendant must be served with a copy of the pleadings. In South Carolina, a defendant has 30 days from the date of service to file an answer, which is their admittance or denial as to the allegations contained in the complaint. If an answer is not filed, the defendant is in default and a judge may find in favor of the plaintiff without going further into the case.
However, if the case moves forward the next step is the discovery process. Discovery is the term used by the legal field to mean the disclosure of important facts or documents to the opposing party in a civil action, usually before a trial begins. Discovery information is obtained by several methods, including a request for production of documents, interrogatories and depositions. All of these methods are used in order to acquire information to decide if the case should be settled or go to trial.
A settlement is an offer made by the defendant by and through his attorney to the plaintiff and the plaintiff's attorney in order to end the case. Once a settlement has been reached and fulfilled, the case is dismissed and will not go forward with a trial. The settlement amount is determined by the plaintiff and their attorney in order to insure the amount is sufficient to cover the costs, fees and other money which has been lost from the action. If a settlement can not be reached, the case may go to trial.
Basic steps of a civil trial
There are nine basic steps of a civil trial.
- Opening statements -- When both attorneys present their argument for the case
- Direct exam by Plaintiff---The plaintiff's attorney calls any witnesses to testify.
- Cross exam -- The defendant's attorney is allowed to question the witnesses called by the plaintiff's attorney
- Motions -- Either attorney may move for certain motions to be made and the judge will then either grant or deny the motion. A common motion made at this point in the trial is a motion for summary judgment. It is basically asking the judge to make a decision based on the information submitted to this point in the trial.
- Direct exam by Defendant -- The defendant's attorney calls any witnesses to testify
- Cross exam -- The plaintiff's attorney is allowed to question the witnesses called by the defendant's attorney
- Closing statements -- The attorneys give their summary of the information heard during the trial
- Jury instruction and deliberation -- The judge instructs the jury (if applicable) on their rights and they stay in a private conference room to discuss the case and make a decision.
- Verdict and sentencing -- The judge or jury foreman will read the verdict and the judge may then pass the judgment.
- Civil Litigation Authors Peggy Kerley, J.D.; Joanne Banker Hames, J.D.; Paul Sukys, J.D., 5th edition, Delmar Cengage Publishing
- Free Legal Dictionary
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