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Litigation 101 - What Happens In A Lawsuit?

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Liza C. Moore
Foster Swift Agricultural Law Update
February 2012

You may find yourself in a situation where you need to sue someone, or someone has sued you, and you are unsure what happens next. Of course, if you find yourself in that situation, the first step is to call your attorney as soon as possible. Only your attorney can be sure that you comply with the court rules and that you do not miss important deadlines that could have serious financial implications for you and your business. The rules and deadlines in litigation are different in each case and depend upon what court has jurisdiction over the lawsuit, which judge is assigned to the case, what types of parties are involved, and what claims are at stake. This article provides a general overview of different litigation stages to help with basic understanding of what happens in a lawsuit.

The Complaint

A plaintiff begins a lawsuit by filing a complaint. In numbered paragraphs, the complaint will explain the jurisdiction (what court has the power to hear the case), venue (where the lawsuit may be filed), claims or counts (for example, breach of contract or negligence), and damages (how much money the plaintiff wants from the defendant) in a case. The complaint will ask for a jury if the plaintiff wants a jury trial. Where the complaint is filed depends on the dollar amount of the claimed damages, the type of claims, and where the parties live or do business.

The First Responsive Pleading

The person sued, the defendant, must respond to the complaint within a deadline set by the applicable rules or a default will enter. A defendant may respond in an answer that admits or denies each of the plaintiff's allegations in the complaint. The answer will list defenses and counter-claims or cross-claims against the plaintiff or other defendants. The answer will state whether the defendant wants a jury trial. The case will then continue. Sometimes a defendant may respond by filing a motion in lieu of an answer, which seeks immediate dismissal of all or part of the complaint. The judge will grant or deny the motion, and the case will either be dismissed or continue and the defendant will answer the complaint. Alternatively, the parties may appeal the judge's decision on the motion.

The Scheduling Order

The judge will issue a scheduling order for each case, setting important deadlines for when the parties may exchange information, file motions, or go to trial.


Discovery is the time period where the parties request and obtain information from each other. The court rules set specific requirements for how the parties may seek and produce this information. If a plaintiff or defendant fails to respond to another party's request as required by the rules, that party may file a motion to compel responses and go before the judge. Often, parties will depose witnesses in the case. In a deposition, attorneys ask a witness questions and everything said is typed word-for-word by a court reporter. The parties then use the transcripts of the deposition in the litigation.


Motions are a way for parties to ask the judge for specific relief, including dismissal or judgment of a case. Motions are typically accompanied by a written "brief" (often not brief at all) that explains the legal argument and may attach many exhibits. If one party files a motion, the other party will usually have the chance to file a written response. The judge may schedule oral argument on the motion, where the attorneys will have to appear in court and verbally explain their position. The judge will make a decision, either orally at the hearing or in a written order or opinion. Parties may appeal final decisions or orders.

Case Evaluation, Mediation, and Settlement

Michigan state courts require parties to participate in case evaluation where a panel of seasoned attorneys evaluates the case and assigns it a monetary value or states that there is no cause of action. The parties may accept the case evaluation award and settle the case. Rejection of case evaluation has implications after trial. At other times, the parties may mediate informally to try to settle the case. When a case is settled, the case is resolved by the parties themselves through negotiations, not by a jury or judge. A settlement agreement is signed by the parties after a settlement, and the parties must then comply with its terms or face further legal action.


After discovery has concluded, if the case does not settle and is not resolved by a motion for summary disposition or judgment, the case will go to trial. Trial requires extensive preparation on the part of attorneys. In a jury trial, the jury is the fact-finder; in a bench trial, the judge decides the facts. In all trials, the judge will rule on objections and motions to exclude certain evidence or testimony. At trial, attorneys will present arguments, witnesses, and evidence. Once the trial has concluded, the parties may sometimes submit post-trial motions or briefs. Attorneys may appeal the judgment entered after a trial.


In an appeal, a trial court's decision is revisited by another "higher" court. An appeal may happen at many times in a case. Depending on the type of appeal, the attorney may have to first seek leave (or permission) from the court to see if it will take the appeal. Sometimes a stay is needed to keep the case from continuing while an issue is up on appeal. Appellate briefs explain why a trial court's decision should be affirmed or reversed and rely on citations to statutes and prior appellate court decisions as authority for their arguments. Rules in appellate courts are different than those at the trial court level. Often attorneys specializing in appellate litigation handle appeals.

As this overview shows, litigation is a complicated process involving many strict deadlines. If you find yourself facing a lawsuit, Foster Swift litigation attorneys have the experience to assist.