Rountree Losee’s litigation attorneys are true trial lawyers. Our litigators are experienced in all areas of civil litigation and have practiced extensively in the state and federal courts of North Carolina. We also practice before the North Carolina Business Court, North Carolina’s innovative forum for the resolution of complex business disputes. A number of our attorneys have experience working for federal and state judges, providing beneficial “behind the bench” experience to the litigation team. Whether your litigation needs involve a complex business dispute, corporate dispute, contract disputes, personal injury actions or fiduciary litigation, our attorneys provide effective, persuasive, results-oriented representation in court.
We also recognize that, in some situations, bringing a dispute to court may not be in our client’s best interest. In these situations, a resolution may be reached through alternative dispute resolution. Our attorneys are experienced in achieving results through all of the alternative dispute resolution processes, including arbitration and mediation.
Many people’s impressions of civil litigation come from watching television shows or movies of lawyers in tailored suits making passionate speeches to a jury or shouting, “I object!” While entertaining, these depictions are often far from the reality of what a lawyer does, especially a civil litigator. This article provides an overview of the reality of civil litigation.
What is civil litigation?
Civil litigation is the process of pursuing or defending a lawsuit. Unlike a criminal case, which is brought by the government to punish an individual for a wrong against society, civil litigation involves an individual or company (the “plaintiff”), seeking monetary damages from another individual or company (the “defendant”), to redress a specific injury that the defendant caused the plaintiff. What makes a civil case distinct from a criminal matter is that at a civil trial, the defendant faces the risk of paying money, not jail time.
The “burden of proof,” a legal term of art that dictates the threshold a litigant must meet to support his claim, also distinguishes civil from criminal matters. To prevail in a civil case, the plaintiff must convince the jury or judge by a standard called the “preponderance of evidence” that the defendant is liable. In other words, the plaintiff has to prove that it is more likely than not, or more than fifty-percent likely, that the defendant did what the plaintiff claims he or she did and that the plaintiff suffered the alleged injury as a result. Conversely, the burden of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that the government (the analogue to the plaintiff in a civil case, since the state initiates criminal actions) must prove that there is no reasonable doubt at ALL that the defendant is guilty. The higher burden of proof is due to the more serious punishment involved in a criminal case – the potential loss of liberty versus paying monetary damages.
What kinds of cases does a civil litigation attorney handle?
Civil litigation matters run the gamut from car accidents to medical malpractice matters, breach of contract, employment disputes, evictions, excessive force complaints, eminent domain, nuisance, elder abuse, fraud, defamation and many, many more. Many civil litigation attorneys specialize in just a few of these areas, as each area stems from a unique body of law.
Do I have a legitimate claim?
To proceed with a civil litigation case, the plaintiff must have standing, another legal term of art that simply refers to the plaintiff’s rightful position as the complaining party. To have standing, the plaintiff must have suffered a specific injury or be faced with what is called an “imminent threat” of injury. There must also be a causal connection between the plaintiff’s injury and the defendant’s conduct, and this injury must be redressable by the court.
For example, if your friend is fired from his or her job for unlawful reasons, (race, gender, marital status, etc.), you cannot sue the employer, because you aren’t the one who suffered the injury. Even though the employer’s conduct violated the law, only the former employee has standing to sue the former employer.
Another example is a plaintiff who lodges a complaint against a colleague for insulting him or her at work. The plaintiff may feel as though he has a legitimate claim, but if all he can present to the court is a bruised ego, there is little a judge can do to redress that harm. In order to have standing, a plaintiff must show more than just inconvenience or hurt feelings: he has to show that he suffered a concrete, tangible loss that the court can compensate by awarding money damages (or some other action).
Standing does not mean you have a legitimate claim. It only allows you to cross the hurdle of asking a court to address the wrong you have suffered. There are numerous other issues that may impact your claim, including the length of time from the injury to the initiation of the lawsuit (statute of limitations), and whether you contributed to the injury (contributory negligence). A civil litigation attorney will advise you of these issues and evaluate the claim based on the facts and applicable law.
What are the stages of a civil litigation case?
A civil litigation case begins when the plaintiff files the complaint – the document explaining what happened, why the plaintiff is entitled to relief, and the kind of relief the plaintiff seeks. The defendant must then be “served” with a copy of the complaint.
After the defendant is served with the complaint, the defendant must file a responsive pleading within a certain amount of time. This can be in the form of an answer or some other motion arguing that the case should be dismissed due to defects on the face of the complaint. If the defendant loses the motion, the defendant must file an answer.
Once an answer is filed, the case is “at issue.” Specific conventions on how the case will proceed vary by specific county and court, but typically, the court will set a trial date and the parties will conduct discovery in preparation for trial. Discovery is the process of obtaining evidence from the other side through written requests for information and verbal requests called depositions.
Prior to trial, a party can also file a dispositive motion, asking the judge to grant relief without the need for trial. A common motion that is filed during the discovery stage and before trial is a motion for summary judgment. In a motion for summary judgment, a party, usually the defendant, asks the court to rule in its favor, because the undisputed material facts show that the party prevails as a matter of law.
After discovery, and assuming the case is not settled or dismissed by a dispositive motion, the parties may proceed to trial. The trial can either be a bench trial (judge only) or a jury trial, if the plaintiff demands it (in most states, the plaintiff has the right to demand a jury). The parties call witnesses, present their evidence, and ask the court or jury to rule in their favor. After the court or jury issues a final ruling called a verdict, the losing party then has a limited amount of time to appeal the ruling, based on some procedural error conducted during the trial.
Will my case go to trial?
Civil litigation cases rarely go to trial. The costs are too high and the risks of losing are too great. A five-day trial can cost as much as $75,000 (at the low end), from start of the case to the end. Most civil litigation cases settle, meaning the parties reach an agreement. Most courts also encourage or require the parties engage in some form of alternative dispute resolution, like mediation, prior to proceeding to trial.
Appellate Litigation Practice
In some instances, a trial court verdict or ruling may be unsatisfactory. In such situations, our experienced appellate attorneys provide clear, effective, and persuasive representation to help our clients navigate successfully through the complicated appellate process. Our appellate attorneys have practiced extensively before the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, among other appellate courts.
If you have specific questions about the civil litigation process, reach out to us to learn more.