In an earlier post, we discussed the initial pleadings and discovery stages of a lawsuit. This post will address the pre-trial and trial stages.
The Pre-Trial Stage
By the time discovery ends, the parties should have an understanding of what evidence, including documents and witness testimony, is available for presentation at trial. Often, the information uncovered in discovery will allow the parties to reach an amicable settlement of their dispute. When the parties are unable to settle during or after discovery, the case will proceed to pre-trial.
During the pre-trial phase, the parties have an opportunity to set the parameters of the upcoming trial. If a party believes that the evidence developed during discovery definitively establishes their claim or defense, the party may file a "dispositive motion," such as a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to rule in their favor without a trial. For those cases that will proceed to trial, the court will hold a pre-trial conference to discuss scheduling, witness lists, and other trial details. The parties may file pre-trial motions, such as "motions in limine," asking the court to exclude certain witnesses or evidence at trial, or to otherwise impose some parameter on the conduct of the trial itself.
In many cases, the court's rulings on motions in limine and other pre-trial motions may result in the parties finally settling their case, sometimes "on the courthouse steps." Those cases that do not settle will finally proceed to trial. In a jury trial, the trial will begin with the selection and seating of a jury. Once the trial is underway, the parties will usually begin by making opening statements in which they tell the judge or jury what they expect the evidence will show. Then, the parties take turns questioning witnesses and presenting documents and other evidence. At the end, parties make closing arguments, in which they tell the judge or jury how the evidence should be interpreted, and why the judge or jury should find in their favor.
Depending on the number of witnesses and the complexity of the case, trials can take a day, a week, a month, or more. Multi-day trials may be held on consecutive days or non-consecutive days, sometimes over a period of many weeks. Once a decision is reach by the judge or jury, the parties have an opportunity to file post-trial motions, including motions asking the judge to set aside a jury's verdict, or to order a new trial, because of some serious defect in the way the trial was handled. Ultimately, the court will enter a Judgment on the parties' claims. Lawsuits generally end with a Judgment, but in some cases there are post-judgment motions that address the enforcement of the Judgment or other post-trial matters, and, of course, there is always the possibility that one or more parties will pursue an appeal.