A Civil Lawsuit
In Arizona, most civil actions are instituted in the County Superior Court, which is a Court of general jurisdiction. A civil action starts by filing a Complaint, which is a short and plain statement of the Plaintiff’s claim. Arizona follows the “notice pleading” standard in its rules of civil procedure, making a Complaint sufficient if it sets forth sufficient facts to state a claim for relief and to permit the framing of Discovery into the details of the claim.
A Complaint should include a statement of the right, duty, breach and damage of the Plaintiff. At the end of a Complaint, a demand is usually included requesting the relief sought. There are some civil actions in which the relief sought does not involve money, such as specific performance of a contract or injunctive relief requiring a party to refrain from doing a particular act or activity.
The Summons, issued by the Clerk of the Court at the time the Complaint is filed, announces the presence of the Court in the dispute, and gives notice to the Defendant that he must respond in a timely fashion to the allegations of the Complaint. The service of the Summons is usually required within a specified time frame.
A Court must be selected that has jurisdiction over the dispute between the parties. Each Court has the power and authority to hear and determine particular legal actions or issues. The term “jurisdiction” may refer to territorial jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction, or jurisdiction over the person. The requirements of both subject matter and personal jurisdiction must both be met before the Court has the authority to judge the rights of the parties involved in the dispute.
The Complaint must also be filed in the proper venue, which is the place where a case may be heard. Venue is location, whereas jurisdiction is the power of the Court to decide the merits of a case. In some situations, the Plaintiff may have more than one choice of venue. If so, the attorney tends to choose the venue which is most advantageous to the client and the case.
After service of the Complaint and Summons, the Defendant must serve and file an Answer to the Complaint within a specified time. The Answer functions both as a response to the Complaint and the first opportunity to assert defenses. Certain defenses, called Affirmative Defenses, must be asserted in the initial Answer or they are deemed waived. The part of the Answer which responds to the Complaint may consist of admissions or denials to the allegations.
Once the claims and defenses have been framed by the Complaint and Answer, a process known as Discovery commences. Like many other states, self-disclosure rules have been adopted in Arizona. Arizona’s broad Discovery rules are intended to avoid the element of surprise by mandating the prompt and full self-disclosure of all relevant evidence before the time of trial.
The primary purpose of any Discovery is to learn the facts of the case and to develop evidence to be used at a possible future trial. Discovery may also be used to 1) document testimony by way of depositions; 2) narrow the issues of the dispute; 3) secure admissions to certain facts; 4) call into question the integrity or credibility of the parties and/or witnesses; and 5) prevent surprises at trial.
One of the most common forms of Discovery is the submission of written questions, called Interrogatories, from one party to another, to be answered under oath. Frequently, the responses to Interrogatories will lead to oral depositions under oath of the parties or witnesses. Depositions are used primarily to discover more details pertaining to a case.
Sometimes a case can be resolved by legal motions, such as a Motion for Summary Judgment. Summary Judgments are not commonly granted because of the presence of issues of fact which prevent a Court from concluding that one party will succeed as a matter of law. Depending upon the proceeding, the trier of fact could be a jury, a judge or a hearing officer.
Many civil lawsuits are resolved by Arbitration or Mediation. There has been a steady increase in the use of Arbitration to resolve disputes, thereby maximizing the use of the judicial resources within the Superior Court system. The underlying assumption is that Arbitration is a more efficient and cost-effective means of resolving minor civil disputes. In Pima County, Arbitration is mandated if the damages sought are $50,000 or less.
Mediation is also becoming a popular means of dispute resolution. The parties generally must agree to engage in Mediation, which is non-binding on the parties. The hope is that a neutral third-party Mediator will be able resolve the dispute between the parties by settlement, rather than a trial. Mediators are frequently experienced former judges or lawyers who have received instruction in successful mediation techniques, but they can also be non-lawyers with business or related experience. Both parties usually contribute equally to the fees of the Mediator. In the last five to ten years, Mediation has become widespread, primarily because of its cost effectiveness.
In cases where damages are claimed in excess of $50,000, usually either party can request a trial by jury. In Pima County, a civil jury consists of 8 members, 6 of whom must agree to reach a verdict. A list of potential jurors, consisting of registered voters and licensed motor vehicle operators, is prepared by the Jury Commissioner.
Once the selection of a jury has been completed, each lawyer is given an opportunity to make an opening statement which, when properly used, sets forth what the evidence in the case will show. This should preview the case from each party’s point of view and typically is confined to a concise statement of the facts that each party proposes to establish by evidence.
The evidence offered at a trial will consist of the testimony of witnesses, documentary evidence (such as business records), and demonstrative evidence (often including photographs, diagrams and/or charts).
During a trial, each side, or perhaps both sides, will often rely upon expert opinion testimony. To be admissible, the Court, in its discretion, will determine whether such expert opinion would be helpful to the jury in understanding the issues presented in a case. An expert witness is usually someone who possesses skill or knowledge in a particular field superior to that of people in general.
At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence by both sides, the attorneys may submit requested instructions of law to the judge, but it is the judge’s obligation to make the final determination as to the content of the jury instructions intended to instruct the jury of the applicable law.
Closing arguments allow the attorneys for each party to try and convince the jury of his client’s position. Obviously, the aim of the attorney is to secure a favorable verdict for his client. Although lawyers have many theories on how to persuade a jury of the correctness of their client’s position, most lawyers strive to make the jury want to find for his client and to tell the jury how to find for his client.
Once a jury reaches its verdict, a form of Judgment is presented to the trial judge and ultimately a Judgment is entered in the case. The Judgment by a jury is subject to post-trial motions and to appeal. The appellate process is a whole new ball game and a subject for another day.
Note: To learn more about appeals, visit the Articles section and read the article entitled: “The Appellate Process” by Gary J. Cohen.