Preparing For Trial
While a trial is what most people think of when they hear the terms lawsuit or litigation, most of the work is done during the pretrial phase, which includes preparing and filing pleadings and motions and exchanging discovery. Pleadings are documents that outline the parties’ claims and defenses. In a motion, a party requests that the court take a specific action. Motions can cover a wide variety of issues from asking the court to compel a witness’s testimony to requesting that the court enter a protective order so that sensitive information is kept confidential.
If you are involved in a legal dispute and think you may want to file a lawsuit, talk to a trial lawyer at The Law Firm of Peters & Wasilefski to discuss your options. With headquarters in Harrisburg, we serve throughout Pennsylvania.
Complaint And Answer
A lawsuit starts with the summons and complaint. The summons gives notice of the suit to the person or entity being sued. A complaint sets forth the claims that the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) has against the defendant (the person or company being sued). The complaint generally states whether the plaintiff is seeking money damages and/or equitable relief, such as an injunction.
The defendant has to answer the complaint within a certain time (usually 20-21 days). If the defendant does not respond to the complaint within the allotted period, then the court could enter a default judgment against the defendant. The answer sets forth the portions of the complaint that the defendant admits to, if any; the allegations that the defendant contests; any defenses the defendant may have; and any claims the defendant wishes to assert against the plaintiff, another co-defendant or any other entity that is not already a party to the litigation. These claims are known as counterclaims (against the plaintiff), cross claims (against a co-defendant) and third-party claims (against a third party not yet part of the litigation). All of these documents – the complaint, answer, counterclaim, cross claim and third-party complaint – are called pleadings. In most cases, pleadings are drafted by a lawyer. However, in many courts people can file papers and represent themselves, which is called appearing pro se.
Discovery is the process of obtaining relevant information, facts and evidence from the other parties. Discovery allows each party to learn about and analyze facts that may support (or weaken) its case; clarify key issues; and secure evidence for use at trial. For cases filed in federal district courts, discovery procedures are governed by Rules 26-37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Generally, the states have similar discovery rules. Rule 26(b)(1) authorizes litigating parties to “obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action.” Privileged information most commonly refers to information covered by the attorney-client privilege, such as communications between the lawyer and his or her client.
There are a variety of ways that parties can discover information, including:
- Interrogatories – Interrogatories are written questions that are served by one party on another. Interrogatories are used to ascertain facts, procure evidence and secure information that will support a party’s legal claims. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 33 governs how interrogatories are to be written and served and establishes limits on the number of questions that can be included. The responding party must answer truthfully within 30 days after being served with the interrogatories and supplement answers if more information becomes available at a later date.
- Requests for Production – Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 34 permits a party to request that another party produce for inspection and copying certain categories of documents and electronically stored information. Parties may also request to view tangible items, such as a defective piece of equipment that is the subject of the lawsuit, and to enter onto land or other property to inspect it, take pictures or take samples. The responding party must answer within 30 days of being served with the requests and may object to the requests.
- Requests for Admission – Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 36, a party may serve on another party a written request to admit certain facts relevant to the lawsuit or that certain documents are genuine. If the party fails to answer or object within 30 days, the matter is deemed admitted.
- Depositions – At a deposition, attorneys question witnesses, who are under oath, about their knowledge of the relevant facts of the case. A court reporter records the testimony. Attorneys can object to questions based on evidentiary rules. The deponent will still be directed to answer questions to which the attorney objects, but the attorneys will seek a ruling from the judge as to the admissibility of such answers before trial.
Depositions give the attorneys a preview of testimony that they will likely hear at trial so there is no surprise. Depositions serve to preserve on the record a witness’ recollections while they are still fresh. In most cases, many months (and sometimes years) may elapse between the disputed event and the eventual trial. Memories of a specific event can become clouded as time passes or they can fade away altogether. In the event a witness passes away or is otherwise unavailable for trial, his or her deposition testimony may be read into the record. In addition, depositions may be videotaped in anticipation of the witness not being available to testify at trial.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37, a party may bring a motion requesting that the court compel disclosure or discovery, including asking the court to order the other party to provide responses to discovery requests. Before bringing such a motion, the party must have made a good faith effort to confer with the other party about compliance with a discovery request. A party may also request that the court sanction or punish the other party for not complying with discovery requests.
Reach Out To Us To Learn More
Pretrial matters, such as pleadings, motions and discovery, are governed by various complex procedural rules. This stage of the litigation can dictate strategy and how litigation will progress. An experienced trial attorney at The Law Firm of Peters & Wasilefski can guide you through the pretrial process and help you comply with all the procedural requirements.