Civil Litigation: A Comprehensive Guide To Court Procedure

trial court featured image
  • James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ, Legal Editor

  • Tyler Dikun

    Executive Editor

    Court Procedure Broken Down

  • Civl procedure was first outlined in the U.S. Constitution over 200 years ago, but has undergone various changes since.

  • Civil procedure is guaranteed to all American citizens thanks to the "Due Process Clause" that is laid out in the 5th and 14th Amendments.

  • Court cases arise from a situation where a damage - either monetary, psychological, or physical arises.

Americans are fascinated with law. Long running legal shows like Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, and Divorce Court continue to capture the drama, tension, and intrigue that Americans crave. Court dramas like 12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, and My Cousin Vinny are amongst the most popular movies in cinematic history. As such, most Americans have some working knowledge of the court system. But the fact is, these popular dramas only brush the surface. It’s time to approach the bench and take your knowledge of the courts from layman to expert.

Civil Procedure: How Does It Work?

Why do our courts operate in the manner that they do? It all comes down to civil procedure. Broadly speaking, civil procedure details the manner in which the legal system conducts civil trials. A civil trial refers to a situation where a judiciary is needed to settle a dispute between parties. Civil procedures exist thanks to the guarantees made in the 5th and 14th Amendments. Both amendments contain the “Due Process Clause”. This clause guarantees the federal and state governments will respect all of the rights guaranteed to each citizen. Simply put, the “Due Process Clause” acts as a safeguard against the denial of rights. 

Civil procedure can be broken down into procedural law and substantive law. Procedural law refers to certain procedures that federal and state governments must abide by. When someone is arrested, they must be read their Miranda Rights. If they exercise their 5th Amendment right, by law, they do not need to speak to law enforcement without a lawyer present. Furthermore, if someone is sued, they must be given a certain number of days to respond. If these procedures are not followed, the case may become invalidated.

Generally speaking, a civil case works like this:

  • Pre-filing stage:  During this stage, the dispute arises and the parties gather information, try to negotiate a resolution, and prepare for the possibility of a court case. 
  • Pleading stage:  In this stage, one party files papers (a "complaint") to start the court case, and the other party files some type of response (an "answer" or maybe a "motion").
  • Discovery stage. During this stage, both sides exchange information and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the other side's case.
  • Trial Stage. During this stage, the case is heard by the judge or a jury. This could last for a couple of hours or a couple of months, depending on the case’s complexity. Witnesses are examined, e
  • Post-trial stage. During this stage, one or both of the parties might appeal the judgment from trial, or the winning party might try to collect the judgment that was entered.

Substantive law refers to written laws passed by a legislator that outline how citizens must behave and the punishments for breaking said laws. Substantive law is used to ascertain whether a crime or tort has been committed. For example, if a town ordinance declares that burning leaves results in a $500 fine, anyone caught doing so would be issued the fine.

court case tom hanks

Why Do We Need Civil Procedure?

Picture the Western United States in 1885. Disease ran rampant, saloons were about the only source of entertainment for miles around, and vigilante justice reigned supreme. Due to the vastness of the Great West, Americans could not often rely on law enforcement to carry out justice. Many of the thrilling western movies we enjoy today manifested from the idea that a lone hero would have to take matters into his/her own hands.

Civil procedure provides a safe and legally binding way to settle disputes and prosecute criminal acts. Think about situations where the court system cannot be relied upon. When two drug dealers have a dispute over price, they obviously cannot use the court system. One or both parties may result to violence in order to solve the problem. Because of litigation and defined legal procedure, citizens can find comfort in the fact that they will have their day in court. In war-torn countries where the court system is not upheld, widespread vigilantism arises, causing innocent civilians to fear for their lives.

lawyers talking with each other

Why Do Court Cases Arise?

With the exception of providing services “pro bono” (free or at a significantly reduced rate), lawyers can be very expensive. So why even go to court in the first place? Court cases arise from a damage or crime inflicted. The second key factor in a court case is the opportunity for a sizable settlement. Going to court can take a heavy financial and emotional toll on the plaintiff. A victim will rarely seek litigation if the potential payout is insignificant with respect to the heavy burden it will take to get that payout. 

Take the case of Stella Liebeck, the elderly woman who suffered third degree burns when she spilled her McDonald’s coffee on herself. Stella did not seek to sue the minimum-wage McDonald’s employee who poured her that scalding cup of coffee. Instead, she went after McDonald’s, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate who could be forced to pay the injured party millions. A New Mexico civil jury awarded Stella $2.9 million for her ordeal.

stella liebeck law suit

You May Now Approach The Bench

Civil procedure not only upholds the rights that all Americans are guaranteed in the Constitution, it also helps maintain social order.  Long gone are they days when vigilantes would take matters into their own hands. Now you know the judicial process and why it’s vital to maintaining a safe and just society.

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