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What Happens in a Civil Case
A civil lawsuit involves disputes between private individuals and/or organizations. The facts of the dispute could involve a contract, a lease, a physical injury experienced by an individual, a divorce, or many other issues. Nonetheless, all disputes or unresolved conflicts between individuals and ultimately may be solved through civil litigation. Generally, the result desired by the person filing the lawsuit is to be compensated for damages. An alternative result is to have the court order another person to begin or stop some activity.
A civil lawsuit is started by the filing of a complaint which details the facts of the situation as seen by the plaintiff, the person desiring the court’s assistance. A filing fee is collected by the deputy clerk at the time of the filing of the complaint. Once a complaint and summons have been filed with the court, these documents must be delivered to the opposing party, known as the defendant. The defendant then has twenty days to respond in writing to the complaint.
The response that the defendant files with the court is known as an answer. Again, the court clerk will collect a set fee for the filing of the answer. The defendant may, at some time, file a counterclaim as part the answer. The counterclaim sets out the facts of any relief that the defendant feels he/she may be entitled to from the plaintiff. The plaintiff then has ten days to file an answer to the defendant’s counterclaim.
If either party fails to comply with the time limits, the other side may ask the court to rule in his/her favor by default. Default is entered when a party does not appear or file papers and the judge may enter a decision or judgment to be collected as any other decision. It should be noted that most time limits may be extended by agreement (stipulation) of the parties and order by the court.
Upon completion of the filing of the various documents as previously described, there is usually a period of time for discovery. This is an intermediate period during which either side may require the other to answer written questions (interrogatories), give sworn testimony under oath (depositions), provide copies of documents that relate to the case, request for production of documents, and several other things that will assist the lawyers in their presentations. The discovery process can be extremely lengthy and complicated.
From the beginning of the dispute, the parties may have been negotiating in hopes of finding a solution. The negotiation may continue throughout the life span of the lawsuit. However, if negotiations have so far been unsuccessful and all discovery has been completed, either side may make various motions to the court. These motions are simply requests that the court decides certain preliminary matters prior to trial. An additional step at this point is the pretrial hearing at which time the lawyers representing both sides of the case, or the parties themselves if they have chosen not to be represented by an attorney, meet with the judge to try and simplify the factual and legal issues as much as possible prior to trial. Often, the judge may be able to assist the parties to come to a mutually agreeable decision at the pretrial hearing.
If all negotiations prior to and during the pretrial hearing have been unsuccessful, the matter will then go before the court in a formal trial. The conduct of the a trial is discussed more thoroughly in Anatomy of a Trial.
Anatomy of a Trial
Once a case has proceeded to the point where it is set to go to trial, a choice must be made whether or not to call a jury. Use of a jury depends on the type of case and the decisions of the parties involved.
Most civil matters may be tried with or without a jury. Criminal misdemeanors also may be tried with or without a jury. However, both the state and the defendant in a criminal misdemeanor case must waive the right to a jury trial. If one of the parties does not waive this right, the trial is conducted before a jury. Most felony cases in Idaho are conducted before a jury, although the constitution permits the defendant to waive a jury trial and have the case heard by a judge alone. Twelve-person juries are utilized in the district court.
The anatomy of a trial is substantially the same with or without a jury, except for the voir dire during which the jury members are selected. The voir dire process involves potential jury members being questioned under oath by the lawyers presenting both sides of the matter to insure a jury is satisfactory to each party. An attorney may challenge a prospective juror for cause or peremptory (without cause). A challenge for cause means that the attorney has found a good reason why a person should not serve as a juror. A peremptory
challenge means that the attorney has decided not to put the individual on the jury and does not need to state a reason. The attorneys have a specified number of peremptory challenges.
Once the jury has been impaneled, each side, through their respective attorney, has the opportunity to make an opening statement, thereby commencing the trial. During the opening statement, the lawyers outline the elements associated with their case. The defendant may choose to wait to give an opening statement until the beginning of his/her case.
Upon completion of the opening statements, the plaintiff (in a civil action)or the prosecutor (in a criminal action) presents his/her case. During this time, the plaintiff’s witnesses are questioned under direct examination by the plaintiff/prosecutor and under cross-examination by the defendant. Upon completion of his/her case the plaintiff/prosecutor rests.
At this time the defendant may present an opening statement if not done so earlier. The defendant then produces his/her witnesses and evidence. The defendant’s attorney questions the defendant’s witnesses on direct examination and the plaintiff/prosecutor examines the witnesses under cross-examination. Upon completion of his/her case the defendant rests. At this time the plaintiff/prosecutor may present any rebuttal witnesses.
During the presentation of testimony and evidence by either side, objections may be made by the opposing attorney. An objection is a lawyer’s argument that evidence should not be heard because it does not bear on the case or is excluded by law. If the judge agrees, or sustains the objection, that information is not included in the record of the trial. If the objection is overruled, the judge did not agree with the lawyer’s objection.
Once both sides have finished presenting their case, the judge will instruct the jury on the law as it applies to the testimony and evidence that they have heard and seen. Closing arguments are made to the jury or the judge by each side as a final summary of their factual and legal position. The jury will then retire to deliberate on the verdict. If the case is being tried without a jury, the court may make a decision immediately or “take the matter under advisement” and advise all parties of his/her decision at a later date.
Once a trial has been completed and a judgment has been entered, there are a limited number of alternatives available to an individual not satisfied with the result of the trial. Initially, an individual may file certain post-trial motions in which he/she asks for reconsideration and/or relief despite the decision of the court or jury. Failing this, an individual or party dissatisfied with the decision may appeal to the next higher court. Ultimately, the court of last resort in the state of Idaho is the Idaho Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court may choose to assign the case to the Court of Appeals for review and decision. While decisions of the Court may be appealed back to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court is not required to grant a review of the Court of Appeals’ decision. In most cases, decisions of the Court of Appeals are final.
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