Sunday, July 12, 2009


By David McCarthy

All lawsuits have three phases: pleading, discovery and trial. In small claims court pleading is simplified, discovery is available only by permission of the court, and the rules of evidence are applied laxly if at all.

Pleadings. Lawsuits start with a plaintiff's complaint, a brief description of the acts and omissions imputed to the defendant and of the injury or damage allegedly caused thereby (e.g., personal injury, property damage, monetary loss).

The defendant will file an answer that admits and denies the various allegations of the complaint, thereby identifying the "triable issues" of the case, the contested questions of fact whose resolution is the purpose of a trial. Sometimes the answer will be accompanied by affirmative defenses or a counterclaim or both, to which the plaintiff will respond in like fashion, i.e., by admissions and denials. Cases can be dismissed on motion at the pleadings phase but that occurs about as often as the Cubs play in the World Series.

Discovery. In the discovery phase the facts that appear in skeleton form in the pleadings are fleshed out. Of the many tools available for this task, three are standard: requests for documents; interrogatories, written questions answered in writing on oath; and deposition, oral questions answered orally on oath. (President Clinton's impeachment woes started with interrogatories in the sexual discrimination lawsuit of Paula Jones that inquired whether other government employees had been subjected to conduct of the kind Ms. Jones complained of.)

Trial. The facts that emerge from the process above described may be lopsided enough to invite a trial avoidance procedure known as a motion for summary judgment. It proposes that trial is not needed because the important facts are undisputed and the judge need only apply the relevant law to the uncontested facts and enter judgment. This tool is used more often by defendants than by plaintiffs because plaintiffs must prove all elements of their prima facie case whereas defendants will prevail if any one element is obviated.

If summary judgment fails (and it often does because the standard of proof is exacting), and if the lawsuit cannot be settled, and if the plaintiff will not voluntarily withdraw it, then what is left is a trial. The office of a trial is to resolve questions of fact, that are still in dispute by the time the case reaches the trial phase. The facts of a case may be tried to a jury or tried to judge. But the law is always determined by a judge and never by a jury.

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