Civil Litigation 101

Civil litigation is the broadest and most diverse section of the legal realm, wherein civil disputes are resolved between two or more persons, businesses and/or government agencies.  Attorneys that practice civil litigation are commonly known as “litigators” or “trial lawyers” and help clients resolve disputes in pre-trial hearings, trials, arbitrations and mediations before administrative agencies, foreign tribunals, and federal, state and local courts. A few examples of such disputes include labor and employment, real estate lawsuits, construction, environmental law, civil rights, housing law, products liability, medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation, intellectual property, consumer law, education law and family law.

A significant portion of the population will have had involvement in civil litigation, either as a witness, the plaintiff (the party that brings the lawsuit or petition) or the defendant (the party that defends against the lawsuit or petition).  Being a party is usually a fairly stressful event which can span from months to years and can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars or more, depending on the complexity of the case, the evidence involved and the case strategy that each party adopts.  The cost to each party includes not only attorney’s fees, but also filing or court fees, sheriff service fees, deposition transcript fees, potentially the fees of one or more expert witnesses, and any out of pocket costs (such as for copies, travel, postage and the like).  A single deposition can cost between several hundred to several thousands of dollars, depending on its length and number of exhibits.

When you are faced with civil litigation, you are usually pitted against one or more other parties and your lawyer is your advocate who employs his or her skill and prowess, along with knowledge of legal rules and procedures, to help you achieve the best possible outcome under all of the facts and circumstances that are unique to your case.  The path to achieving the outcome can involve several stages, up until the time that the matter is settled either voluntarily by the parties or by a disposition or order entered by the court, agency or tribunal.  Litigation stages include initial investigation, pleadings (the formal documents filed with the court that contain the relief sought and the defenses against the relief sought), discovery (the time and labor intensive task of gathering and exchanging information through written interrogatories, document requests, subpoenas and oral depositions under oath), pretrial proceedings, potential settlement or trial, and even appeal.  Civil litigation attorneys spend most of their time in the office investigating and researching claims and defenses, drafting documents, analyzing evidence and developing their cases and arguments, as opposed to the courtroom where these many hours or work are  culminated into one or more hearings and/or a trial.

In each dispute that receives a final determination by the court, there is a winner and a loser.  If a party is not pleased with the outcome of a hearing or a trial, it may appeal to the next highest tribunal.  For example, in state court, small claims matters are appealed to district court, district court matters are generally appealed to superior court and superior court matters are generally appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.  Matters decided at the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, though this high court only accepts a percentage of cases that are appealed to it.  The appellate courts (Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) have their own set of rules, in that they do not make new factual determinations, but rely upon the facts found in the lower court and consider whether error occurred at trial or in judicial interpretation or application of the law.

It is possible for the winner to spend more on the litigation itself than is recovered.  For this reason, settlement efforts are usually worthwhile and some courts or tribunals require that the parties participate in a mediated settlement conference prior to the trial or hearing to see what issues can be worked out.  It is common for the parties to settle one or more issues between them at mediation or by way of some other settlement effort.  Sometimes, with client consent, the attorneys initiate settlement efforts themselves when they feel it is in their client’s best interest.  It is important to hire a lawyer who can help navigate you through litigation decisions, such as when to make a settlement attempt or when to go to trial.   It is also helpful to speak to lawyers before becoming involved in litigation about the potential length and cost of the litigation, as well as the remedies or possible outcomes if litigation is pursued.  Lastly, it is crucial to keep the lines of communication open with your attorney and to carefully consider the attorney’s recommendations during the pendency of the litigation in order to achieve the best possible result.  The stress felt by the parties during the litigation often become replaced with mutual relief once the dispute is over.

Susan L. Evans is a civil law litigator practicing state and federal law in Asheville, North Carolina, and surrounding areas. She has experience in employment, civil rights, business, contract, tort, consumer, real estate, construction and family law litigation.  Her practice also includes appellate work.  For more information, visit http://www.evanslaw-asheville.com/.

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