In a civil litigation, a person or company called a plaintiff seeks to recover damages from an opposing party called the defendant. Civil court is not criminal court, so the losing party won't receive jail time. If the plaintiffs win, they receive damages in either a money judgment or a modification such as the return of property or fulfilling a contract. However, before damages are awarded stages of civil court must be followed.
The pleading stage means filing a lawsuit or complaint against the defendant. When filing the complaint, the plaintiff or his attorney must complete a court document. Within the complaint, the plaintiff lists reason or grounds for the lawsuit such as breach of contract or unpaid loan. Once the documents are accepted by the court and fees are paid, the local court enters the lawsuit into record. The defendant receives a copy of the complaint along with a specific number such as 20 days to answer the complaint. Within the defendant's answer, she must contest elements of the complaint which can include that the defendant didn't breach the contract. At the end of the pleading stage, the local court will decide if there's merit to the complaint. If the complaint is without merit, then the plaintiff can amend it and refile.
When a complaint has merit, the discovery process begins. This process is where each party gathers evidence that supports their case. For instance, the plaintiff can serve the defendant with a legal document with a list of questions for the defendant to provide written answers, called interrogatories. Another part of the discovery process is called a deposition. A deposition is where each party is questioned by a lawyer on facts of the case. Also each party can request documents such as letters or contracts from each other.
Before both parties plead their case in court, the presiding judge may require them to attend a pretrial conference. During the conference, the plaintiff and defendant are not present. Instead the presiding judge and each party's lawyers meet in judge's chambers. One goal of the conference is to find an agreement on stipulations or uncontested factual issues to eliminate the need to discuss them in court. Another goal of pretrial conference is to avoid trial and settle out of court.
Although the final stage is going to trial, in some cases trial may not happen. For instance, a defendant may not answer the complaint and allow the plaintiff to automatically win through a default judgment. Also, during each stage a plaintiff may request and receive a summary judgment. A summary judgment is where the presiding judge agrees with the plaintiff because the defense doesn't have a good case.