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A Guide to LawsuitsPrintE-mailPDF

A lawsuit is the process of resolving a dispute in court. ‘Civil’ cases are disputes between two parties, either individuals, companies or governments. “Criminal” cases always involve the state prosecuting someone for a crime.


There are several kinds of courts. The state and the federal government each have a court system. Most cases are in the state court system. Cases that involve up to $30,0000, as well as evictions, are handled in a ‘Municipal Court’ or a ‘County Court.’ ‘Small Claims Court’ is a special division of these courts. It handles smaller disputes with simpler procedures and at less cost. Larger cases and divorces are handled in the ‘Court of Common Pleas.’ Probate court and Juvenile Court handle specialized matters. These are all trial courts.

If you are dissatisfied with a decision of a trial court, you can appeal to the Court of Appeals. Appeals are not new trials. The Court of Appeals reviews the record and evidence from the trial court for legal errors. In Ohio, the Supreme Court hears appeals from all the Courts of Appeal.

The federal court system is similar to the state court system. It hears cases involving federal law and disputes that occur across state lines.


The person who files a lawsuit is called a ‘plaintiff.’ The plaintiff claims that another person owes him some legal duty, usually to pay money. The person being sued is called the ‘defendant.’ People ask a court for help by filing papers called ‘pleadings.’ The first pleading is called a "complaint". It sets out the plaintiff’s claim. It also asks the court to make an order. The complaint is filed with the clerk of the court.

The Clerk arranges for the complaint to be given to or "served on" the defendant. Usually, the complaint is send by certified mail. Or a court official, such as a sheriff or special process server, can deliver it. If this doesn't get the complaint to the defendant, other steps can be taken.

After being served, the defendant has 28 days to file a written ‘answer’ responding to the complaint. (Evictions and small claims are different in that a trial date is set.) If no answer is filed, the plaintiff can get a court order winning the case, which is called a ‘judgment.’ If the defendant files an answer disagreeing with the plaintiff, the case remains open for further action.

DISCOVERY Each side in a case has the right to find out facts about the other side's case. This process is called ‘discovery.’ There are several ways of doing discovery: written questions called ‘interrogatories;’ ask that they ‘produce documents;’ ask questions of witnesses under oath called ‘depositions;’ or ask them to ‘admit’ certain facts. Each side can request discovery; the law requires each side to cooperate.

MOTIONS Before trial, one side or the other may ask the judge to rule on a legal point or request temporary orders.. This is done by filing a ‘motion.’ A motion may have a ‘memorandum’ which tells the judge about laws and other court decisions that show the motion is correct. Sometimes there is an ‘affidavit,’ a statement sworn to under oath. The other side may also submit a memorandum. There are all kinds of motions. Some may seek to force the other side cooperate with discovery, to protect or limit evidence, or to ‘continue’ or postpone a trial date.

One important motion is for ‘summary judgment.’ This motion says that there are no important facts in dispute. By law, if there are no important facts in dispute, the judge can decide the case without a trial.

Sometimes the judge will hold a "hearing" and take evidence or hear arguments in court before deciding a motion. Whether to do this is up to the judge.

PRETRIAL CONFERENCES The judge may want to meet with the attorneys to plan the case. This is called a ‘pretrial conference.’ Some can be very short or happen over the telephone. The judge may require a “pretrial statement” to be filed.

TRIAL If there are important facts in dispute, there will be a trial. In a trial, the judge runs the court and rules on questions of evidence and procedure. The facts will be decided by the judge or by a jury, if one was requested early in the case. Witnesses testify under oath and are questioned by the lawyers. The lawyers can make opening statements and closing arguments. At the end there is a decision. If a judge is deciding the case, the judge may take the case ‘under advisement’ to think about it before deciding. If there is a jury it will ‘deliberate’ or talk about the case until it reaches a "verdict" or decision.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE How long a lawsuit will take depends on a number of things, such as how complicated the case is, how cooperative the other side will be and how many other cases the judge has.

Here is a general timetable:

From this to this takes this long
filing the case serving the defendant average 1-3 weeks
serving the defendant to answering 28 days
answering to starting discovery a few weeks or more
sending discovery to answering discovery a month or more
motions/trial date   varies can be up to a year or more


WHAT YOU SHOULD DO WHEN YOU ARE IN A LAWSUIT Do not feel that once a lawyer has taken over your case that you have nothing more to do with it. It’s your case. You know the facts. You are the one who must live with the result. Here are important things to do.

  • Don’t talk to the other side. Tell them to talk to your lawyer. Call your lawyer immediately.
  • If you receive any mail that has to do with your case, call your lawyer.
  • When your lawyer sends you legal papers, read them.
  • Ask your lawyer to explain anything you don’t understand.
  • Attend the hearing, pretrial, deposition and trial. You have the right to attend any hearing, pretrial or deposition. However, the judge may hold brief sessions in chambers with only
  • the lawyers.
  • Always tell the truth to your lawyer, even if it’s embarrassing. Avoid surprises.
  • If you are going to testify, prepare with your lawyer.
  • Always tell the truth in court.
  • If your lawyer tells you to do something concerning your case, do it.
  • Make sure your lawyer always has your address and telephone number.


This article is meant to give you general information and not to give you specific legal advice.
Prepared by Community Legal Aid Services, Inc. Updated May 2012. CE-99-F270-CLAS

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