Nearly every week of the year, throughout Ohio and beyond, ordinary citizens, like yourself, are forced to navigate one of the five primary court systems in our country: civil, criminal, appellate, family, and bankruptcy. These court systems have the power to determine potentially life-changing outcomes; for better or worse. Each court system is different, and at Graham & Graham, we believe that “knowledge is power.” Knowing how each court system works gives you, the individual, peace of mind should you ever find yourself needing access to one.
Our lawyers want you to feel that you are not only in good hands, but that you know what’s coming.
If you ever wondered why the famous O.J. Simpson murder allegation was first addressed in the criminal system, at trial by jury, and later in the civil system, here’s the answer. Despite being acquitted by a jury of peers in criminal court—not guilty of the alleged crimes—our system offers access to multiple levels of justice. After the criminal case was finished, the victims’ families filed a lawsuit in “civil court,” seeking money from O.J. in exchange for their suffering. Even though a jury in the criminal system did not convict, they won in civil court. We believe that nowhere in the world is there a fairer and more just system than that in the USA.
The Five Primary Court Systems Defined
- The criminal court system—law enforcement, lawyers, judges, and juries—work cases that involve people involved in crimes.
- The civil court system attends to disputes—also referred to as litigation—between individuals, as well as between individuals and businesses, or between individuals or businesses and other parties, such as insurance companies or government entities, including the Social Security Administration.
- The appellate court system allows people who believe a criminal or civil court made the wrong decision to bring their argument (on appeal) to a higher court, including all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. An appeal, if successful, will reverse the decision of the lower court. Appeals are sometimes successful in criminal cases when new facts are uncovered.
- The family law court system tends to divorce, child custody, and non-felony cases involving minors.
- The bankruptcy court system determines cases involving financially distressed individuals and businesses.
For most folks, any encounter with a legal system is like stepping off of a cliff—the landing is unknown and thus scary, not to mention stressful and, possibly, expensive. From the minute you suspect you have something that needs to be addressed by one or another legal system, our lawyers want you to feel that you are not only in good hands, but that you know what’s coming. Today’s post is the first in our series of “what to expect when navigating legal systems.” We start with the civil law system.
How a Civil Lawsuit in Ohio Works
Although the United States has a reputation as being lawsuit-happy, Americans are actually filing far fewer civil lawsuits—also known as tort lawsuits—than they used to. And very few of those cases end up going to trial.
If you’ve never been a party to a civil lawsuit, you may be unsure of what to expect from the process. While each case varies considerably, and nothing is guaranteed, some basic steps apply in most instances. Questions about a civil law matter can be discussed with Graham & Graham during a free case review.
What is a Civil Lawsuit?
Civil lawsuits address accusations of wrongdoing between two parties: the plaintiff, the party filing the lawsuit, and the defendant, the party against whom allegations or claims are brought. They differ from criminal matters, which deal with law enforcement charges brought by a state or federal government against a person or organization.
Civil lawsuit plaintiffs allege to be victims of civil wrongs—including unsafe products, medical malpractice, personal injuries, and unfair business practices, to name a few. Typically, the main dispute in a civil lawsuit is whether the defendant’s actions towards the plaintiff were negligent (that is, if the defendant failed to carry out a legal duty owed to the plaintiff).
The same act can result in both civil and criminal charges, but the proceedings are handled separately in different court proceedings. Civil and criminal cases also deal with distinct sets of laws and have different punishments. The penalty for civil wrongdoing is most often financial, while criminal defendants may be subject to incarceration or probation.
Tort lawsuit filings have decreased significantly over the years. According to an analysis from the Wall Street Journal, fewer than two in 1,000 Americans filed civil lawsuits in 2015. In 1993, about ten in 1,000 Americans filed civil lawsuits.
Steps in a Civil Lawsuit
The steps below provide a general overview of what to expect in a civil lawsuit. At any point, the process can be stopped and the case settled through a voluntary agreement between the parties. In fact, settlement is the norm. Data from Court News Ohio shows that only about one to two percent of Ohio civil lawsuits go to trial. Alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration or mediation, is sometimes substituted for a trial.
- Complaint and Answer: Initial papers known as “pleadings” are filed by each party.
- The plaintiff files a “complaint”—a document that outlines the case against the defendant—with the court.
- A copy of the complaint is also sent to the defendant, who under Ohio law has 28 days to respond with their side of the dispute in a document known as an “answer.” The answer might contain counter-claims, ask the plaintiff to clarify or correct parts of the compliant, or request that the court dismiss all or part of the lawsuit.
- Discovery and Pre-Trial: After the complaint and answer are filed, the parties have an opportunity to request case information from each other in a process called “discovery.”
- During discovery, the plaintiff, defendant, witnesses, experts, and other parties may be asked to provide testimony under oath.
- Additionally, information can be gathered through written questions (“interrogatories”) and requests for documents.
- Sometimes, disputes arise about whether certain types of evidence should be allowed and are settled by the judge.
- At the conclusion of discovery, either party may request a “summary judgment” because they believe that the facts do not merit a dispute. If granted by a judge, summary judgment dismisses all or parts of the plaintiff’s or defendant’s case.
- Trial and Judgment: Assuming the civil lawsuit makes it this far, each party presents evidence in court that supports their side of the case. In a civil case, the accuser (plaintiff) must prove their case with a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that, based on the evidence, the plaintiff’s claims are more likely than not. The judge, a panel of judges, or a jury weighs the evidence and enters a “judgment” in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant. If the defendant is found to be liable, the court then awards “damages” (monetary compensation) to the plaintiff.
Graham and Graham: Practicing the Art of Law Since 1923
As a client of Graham & Graham, you can count on the highest-quality, client-centered legal services. From filing case documents to gathering evidence to settlement negotiations to trial, our priority is ensuring that everything goes smoothly and that you are always informed of the process and, importantly, that you fairly treated or compensated.
The first step in seeking civil justice is to speak with a lawyer. For a free case review, call 1-800-621-8585 or send us a message.