Uniquely Louisiana

Uniquely Louisiana

What is the basic structure of a civil court case?

| Jan 11, 2019

If your organization is involved in a business dispute, you may decide you need to have a court resolve it. Assuming that you are unable to settle the matter out of court, what can you expect?

The first step in a lawsuit is to file a complaint with a state, federal or other appropriate court. Most commercial cases will be filed in state court. The court clerk will set a date for a hearing, which is when motions and other preliminary matters will be heard.

Next, your legal team will begin the process called “discovery.” During this process, both sides use subpoenas, depositions, interrogatories, requests for admission and requests for the production of documents to demand admissible evidence from the opposing party or third parties.

These discovery devices are backed by the power of the court. Respondents have a legal duty to answer fully and accurately or to show cause why they should not be required to. Typically, a great deal of the evidence in any legal case is found via the discovery process.

Settlement is relatively common after discovery, as both sides have a clearer idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s case.

The trial process

The next step is a trial. Each party has the right to demand a trial by jury, but the case can also be tried by a judge alone. If a jury is demanded, each side will participate in the selection of jurors.

The trial begins with opening statements, starting with the plaintiff’s attorney. This is a speech laying out the party’s theory of the case and describing what evidence will be produced to support it.

Once both sides have completed their statements, the presentation of evidence and witnesses begins. The plaintiff’s side presents first, with the defendant’s side cross-examining the plaintiff’s witnesses as necessary. Then, the defense presents its case.

Once the evidence is in, each side presents a closing argument in which it again describes its theory of the case and points to the evidence supporting it.

After the closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury on their task and the law they should rely on. They are told that, in a civil trial, the plaintiff has the burden of proving its case by “a preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that the jurors must be more than 50 percent convinced. The defendant has no duty to prove anything.

Finally, the jurors are sent to a private room to deliberate and arrive at a verdict. In Louisiana, the verdict need not be unanimous but can be agreed upon by a majority of the jurors.