The days of resolving differences on the streets are past. In the modern world, people usually take their differences into court to get a ruling. Since court records are open to the public, it's not hard to find out if a specific case went to trial and a judgment was entered. But figuring out which party "won" or fared better requires an understanding of the case, the law and the claims in the pleadings.
Bringing a Lawsuit
A lawsuit begins when someone files a complaint or a petition with a court. That person is called a plaintiff. The document must set out the particular facts of the case including the name of the person or company being sued, which is called the defendant. In the complaint, the plaintiff asks the court for specific relief. For example, if the plaintiff was injured in a car accident that she claims was caused by the defendant, she might ask the court to award her an amount of money to compensate her for her injuries.
The defendant files a response to the complaint, either admitting to or denying the claims. In the example above, the defendant might admit that he was involved in the car accident but claim it was the fault of the plaintiff. Or he might admit that he was at fault but deny that the plaintiff was injured. The substance of the defendant's response tells the court which facts have to be resolved in court.
Winning a Lawsuit
Both parties gather evidence supporting their version of the facts. Sometimes, the issues are presented to the court for resolution in a document called a summary judgment motion. If the motion is granted, the case ends there. Otherwise, the case goes to trial.
If the jury believes the defendant, then the verdict will be against the plaintiff, termed a defense verdict. In this case, the defendant has won. If the plaintiff's version is found credible, the jury will enter a verdict for the plaintiff. You have to compare the plaintiff's demand to her verdict to figure out if she really won the case. A one dollar verdict in a case seeking a million dollars may not be a real win.
Finding Out the Outcome of a Case
A lawsuit may end in a verdict for the plaintiff, a verdict for the defendant or a settlement. In fact, the vast majority of lawsuits brought in the United States end before trial in a pretrial settlement. When settlements are confidential, you won't be able to find out the details. In any event, a settlement is usually for some middle amount, less than the plaintiff wanted but more than the defendant wanted to pay. So, figuring out winners and losers is difficult.
However, it is quite easy to find out the verdict of a particular case that goes through trial. You can attend the trial and hear the judge or jury announce the verdict. It's also possible to go to the clerk of court after the case is over, and ask to see the file. Asking a party or the attorney of one of the parties is another way to learn about the outcome.
Finding a Judgment Online
Even if you live across the country from the courthouse where the case was tried, you may be able to find out what happened online. In California, you can track a superior court (trial court) case through the website of the Superior Court in the relevant California county. Many California Superior Courts provide links to information regarding individual cases.
If you want to find websites for accessing court records in your state, call a local court or do an internet search. The website of Massachusetts Legal Services has a list of searchable court databases, and that's a good place to start.
Read More: Definition of an Unopposed Summary Judgment
You can find out whether a person bringing a lawsuit won a verdict by inspecting the case file at the courthouse or online. However, if a case settled rather than going to trial, the result might be confidential.
- The Law Dictionary: What Percentage of Lawsuits Settle Before Trial? What Are Some Statistics on Personal Injury Settlements?
- California Courts: Appellate Courts Case Information
- San Diego Superior Court: Accessing Court Case Files
- San Diego Law Library: How to Track a California Case Online
- Massachusetts Legal Services: How to Look Up Court Records On the Internet – Links to Online Access to Records in Other States
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.