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Lawsuits and Claims

This document provides a summary of the law in this area and answers questions frequently asked of attorneys in the Office of University Counsel.  However, the information presented here is intended for informational purposes only and nothing in this document should be construed or relied upon as legal advice.  You should refer to official University policy or consult with the Office of University Counsel regarding the specific facts and circumstances associated with any legal matter.

OVERVIEW OF A LAWSUIT

What is a lawsuit?  

  • A lawsuit is a complaint filed in a court of law by one person against another.

 How does a lawsuit begin?  

·        A lawsuit begins when someone files a complaint in either federal or state court.  The party filing the complaint is the plaintiff and the party being sued is the defendant.  The complaint is a legal document (also called a pleading) that states the basic legal and factual grounds for a lawsuit, the injury or damages suffered, the people or entity claimed to be responsible for the damages, and the type of remedy requested.   

Can a lawsuit result in criminal penalties?  

  • Criminal claims are always brought by the government and can result in criminal fines or jail.  Lawsuits, on the other hand, are called civil claims and seek money or other relief as a sanction.  

How will I know that I have been sued?  

  • Once a complaint is filed in court, it must be “served” on you.  Service can be made by a sheriff, process server, disinterested party or simply by U.S. mail.  Depending on the court in which you have been sued, you might be served with the complaint itself or with a summons notifying you that a complaint has been filed.  The documents with which you are served should give you information about the date by which you must respond to the complaint.  If you fail to respond by the specified date, the court can enter a default judgment against you.  

Does it matter whether a lawsuit is filed in either state or federal court?   

  • The federal courts (the United States District Courts) or the state courts (in Pennsylvania , Courts of Common Pleas) have different rules for how a case will proceed.  It is important to know which court the lawsuit was filed in so that you can identify which court rules to rely on.  

Do I have to hire an attorney to help me respond to the lawsuit?  

  • If you are sued personally, you are not required to hire an attorney, however, it may be beneficial to do so.  You should, at least, strongly consider consulting with one or more attorneys to understand why it might be helpful to hire one.  If you are sued for something you did as part of your job, your employer might provide you with an attorney to represent you. 

 How do I respond to the complaint?  

  • Assuming you have hired an attorney, your attorney will file either an answer to the complaint or a motion to dismiss the complaint.  
  • The answer admits those allegations with which you agree, denies those with which you disagree, and asserts affirmative defenses if there are any.  Affirmative defenses put the plaintiff on notice that your attorney will put forward certain theories in an effort to defeat any of his or her claims.

·        A motion to dismiss (also called a demurrer or preliminary objections, depending on the court) filed at this stage usually argues that there is no legal theory that could be the basis for liability.  For example, a lawsuit that was filed too many years beyond the date of the alleged injury might be deemed to exceed the statute of limitations, and therefore might be dismissed at this early stage.  

·        The court may or may not hold a hearing during which each attorney argues the reasons why his/her position should prevail.  The court may, however, decide the motion on written arguments, called briefs, and issue an opinion.  Either way, if the court agrees with the defendant’s motion, the complaint is dismissed.     

·        If the motion to dismiss is denied (that is, if the court does not agree with the defendant’s motion), then the defendant must file an answer.  At this time, the defendant also may file a counterclaim, alleging that the plaintiff is responsible for damages or injuries that arose from the same set of facts and circumstances stated in the complaint.   

Why might a complaint say “Jury Trial Demanded” on the cover?  

·        Typically, a plaintiff must indicate whether s/he wants the case to be decided by a jury, as opposed to being decided by a judge.  Some courts require a plaintiff to make this indication on the face of the complaint.  

How long will it take for the case to get to trial?  

  • The court usually will issue a scheduling order that sets the deadlines for discovery proceedings, and that may set the times for pretrial conferences, motion deadlines, and the actual trial date.  These dates may change, however, it is important to remain aware of them because failure to meet deadlines can result in adverse actions against you by the court. 

 What are discovery proceedings?  

  • “Discovery” is the period during a lawsuit in which the parties learn as much as they can about the other party’s claims and defenses.  Discovery can occur through several different means, including (1) interrogatories – written questions to the opposing party; (2) requests for documents – written requests that the other party produce documents to support or defeat a certain concept or allegation; or (3) depositions – questioning under oath by the opposing attorneys that is transcribed by a court reporter.  
  • If one party refuses to comply with a discovery request or does not comply fully, the other party can file a motion to compel a response with the court.  The court either will require that a response be given, or will agree that one is unnecessary based on the circumstances.    

Does the case go to trial as soon as discovery is completed?  

  • Following the discovery period, the parties may file motions for summary judgment – these are motions that argue that, based on the undisputed facts of the case, one side or the other should win as a matter of law.  
  • The court may also schedule a settlement conference in which the court attempts to get both sides to reach an out-of-court settlement.  Sometimes the parties may attempt to settle the case with the assistance of a mediator or judicial magistrate.  

What happens if there is a settlement between the parties before the case goes to trial?  

  • A case can be settled at any time.  Even though a court might schedule a settlement conference, the parties do not have to wait for this conference to settle the case.  Also, even if a settlement conference does not result in a settlement, the parties can settle the case afterward.  

What happens at trial?  

            Jury Selection  

  • Assuming a case does not settle before trial, then the case is placed on the trial docket.  If a jury has been requested, the attorneys will begin the trial process by selecting a jury from among the jury pool.  Unlike criminal trials in which there are twelve jurors, civil juries usually are comprised of six or seven members who do not need to find their verdict unanimously. 

             Opening Statements  

  • After the jury has been selected, the trial will begin.  The plaintiff’s lawyer makes an opening statement, followed by the defendant’s lawyer.  Opening statements give each side the opportunity to tell the jury what the case is about and what evidence they hope to present to support their side.  

Burden of Proof  

·        In order for the plaintiff to win the case, his/her attorney must satisfy the “burden of proof” by a “preponderance of evidence”.  In other words, he/she she must show that the facts of the plaintiff’s case  are more likely to be true than the facts of the defendant’s case.  The defendant’s attorney’s role is to present enough evidence to support his/her argument that the plaintiff’s evidence is insufficient to sustain a burden of proof.   

Presentation of Evidence  

·        Once opening statements are concluded, the plaintiff’s attorney may begin presenting evidence by calling witnesses to testify and presenting documents to support his/her case.   When the plaintiff’s attorney finishes questioning each witness, then the defendant’s attorney may “cross-examine” the witness.  This is the opportunity for the defendant’s attorney to show contradictions, inconsistencies, weaknesses or credibility problems with the witnesses the plaintiff’s attorney has called.   

·        At the close of the plaintiff’s case, that is, when the plaintiff’s attorney has finished getting testimony from all witnesses whom s/he believes prove the plaintiff’s case, then the defendant’s attorney calls witnesses to testify and present documents to support his/her version of the facts.  Similar to what occurred during the plaintiff’s presentation of evidence, when the defendant’s attorney finishes questioning each witness, then the plaintiff’s attorney may “cross-examine” the witnesses to attempt to undermine the defendant’s case. 

 Closing arguments  

  • Once all testimony and evidence has been presented by both sides, each attorney has the opportunity to attempt to demonstrate how the facts that were elicited at trial prove his/her case.  The plaintiff’s attorney presents his/her summary of the case first, draws inferences from the facts and sets forth the basis for the claim for damages.  The defendant’s attorney goes next, arguing why the plaintiff’s attorney has not adequately proven his/her case by a preponderance of evidence or, at least, why the plaintiff is not entitled to the type or amount of damages sought.  

            Jury instructions and deliberations  

  • After both closing arguments have been made, the judge reads a series of instructions to the jury to aid them in applying the law to the facts of the case.  With all the evidence and the judge’s instructions in mind, the jury goes into a private room and decides whether to rule in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant, and if in favor or the plaintiff, what amount of damages to award.  
  • When the jury has reached a decision (unanimity is not required as it is in a criminal case), the jury comes back into the courtroom and reads its verdict.

What happens if I lose at trial?  

  • Certain motions can be filed by the losing party following the jury’s verdict.  Also, the losing party may opt to file an appeal with a higher level court whose role is to review what occurred in the trial court.  An appeal typically is limited to whether the trial court made any legal errors either on pre-trial motions or during trial.  The appellate court can affirm the trial decision, reverse it, or remand the case (that is, send it back for further proceedings).  After all appeals have been exhausted, either because they have been presented and resolved by all appellate levels of review or because the requisite amount of time has passed, the case cannot be brought to trial again.  

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