The Anatomy of a Case

A. Lamar Matthews, Jr.  |  Theodore C. Eastmoore  |  Arthur S. Hardy  |  Martin Garcia  |  Patricia D. Crauwels  |  E. Keith DuBose  |  Margaret Good  |  Josh R. Dell

The attorneys of Matthews Eastmoore are civil trial lawyers. This means we represent parties in legal disputes where a party or parties seek money damages or equitable relief. Automobile accident claims, claims of defamation, and complex commercial disputes are all examples of civil disputes. While most people are familiar with the concept of a trial, many people do not know about the lengthy procedures that can ultimately lead to a trial.

Generally, civil litigation follows this course:

  1. A dispute arises between two or more parties. For instance, in automobile accident cases, the parties may dispute who was responsible for the accident. In business litigation, a party may believe a business associate breached his or her contract.
  2. The parties engage in pre-suit negotiation or discovery. Often, the next step in the process is to go through either formal or informal pre-suit negotiations. In a medical malpractice context, for instance, Florida law requires every plaintiff and every defendant to engage in certain pre-suit procedures in an effort to resolve the dispute prior to filing suit. Even when it is not statutorily mandated, it is often in a party’s best interest to try to resolve a dispute before a lawsuit is filed.
  3. A lawsuit is filed. If the parties cannot come to an agreement, the injured party will file a complaint, which initiates the lawsuit. The complaint puts the other parties on notice of the claims asserted. It usually contains a number of factual allegations and will also allege what are called causes of action. Claims for negligence, negligent hiring, fraud, foreclosure, defamation, wrongful death, and breach of contract are examples of causes of action.
  4. The lawsuit is served on opposing parties. The parties to a lawsuit must be personally served notice that there is a complaint against them. Typically, a process server or a sheriff will go to the party’s home or place of business and hand the defendant a copy of the complaint.
  5. Response by the other party. After receiving the complaint, the other party makes his or her response. At this point in the litigation, the defendant will either answer the complaint by admitting or denying the allegation, or will move to dismiss the complaint on some basis, such as if the allegations are insufficient to establish that the plaintiff could prevail even if they are true. The defendant will often include affirmative defenses in its answer. For instance, if the lawsuit was not timely filed, the defendant would include a statute of limitations affirmative defense. In Florida, parties can choose whether to have their civil case tried by a jury or by a judge. If either party wants a jury trial, the party has to request it in the pleadings. If neither party requests a jury trial, the case will be tried as a bench trial in front of a judge.
  6. The parties engage in discovery. During this phase, the parties ask for and provide information related to the lawsuit. Often parties will take statements under oath, called depositions, from parties and witnesses. The parties can also request documents, send written questions to the other side to answer (these are called interrogatories), and can send statements that the other side has to either admit or deny (called a request for admissions). Depending on the complexity of the case and the relative cooperation of the parties, discovery can take as little as several months or as long as several years. Often parties will ask for documents that another party does not believe it has an obligation to produce. If this happens, the parties may have to request a judge decide the dispute.
  7. One or more parties move for summary judgment. After the parties have completed discovery and depending on the facts of the case, one or more parties may request the court grant summary judgment. Essentially, the party moving for summary judgment must convince the court that the undisputed evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is so clear that when the law is applied to it, there is no question of fact and that the party is entitled to a judgment in its favor as a matter of law. If a court grants final summary judgment, the case is over as to that party. Sometimes, a party will move for partial summary judgment on one or more legal issues. This is a way to narrow the issues for trial.
  8. The parties mediate and/or engage in settlement negotiations. Once the case is set for trial, most often the court will order the parties to mediate their case. Mediation is an informal process where the parties hire a third person, called a mediator. The mediator listens to both sides of the case, points out the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s case and tries to help the parties come to an agreement to end the dispute. Even if the court does not mandate mediation, the parties often engage in mediation or, if not in mediation, in some form of settlement discussions. This is because all lawyers, and every party who has ever been involved in litigation, understands how expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally draining a lawsuit can be for both parties—and there is always a chance that, at trial, the party may lose and come away completely empty-handed or have a substantial judgment entered against it. For these reasons, many parties decide it is in their best interest to come to an agreement to resolve the dispute. However, there are some disputes that cannot be resolved without a trial.
  9. The parties go to trial. If the parties do not settle the case, or if one party does not win on summary judgment, the case will go to trial. Depending on the case, either the judge or the jury will be the finder of fact and decide the case. At trial, each side will present its witnesses and evidence. The plaintiff will present its case first, as the plaintiff has the burden of proof and must establish enough facts for the jury or judge to find in the plaintiff’s favor. Once each side has presented its case, the jury (or the judge) will deliberate and provide the parties with a verdict.
  10. The finder of fact provides the parties with a verdict: The verdict is the final decision in the case. The finder of fact will be asked a series of questions and the parties’ fates depends on how these questions are answered.
  11. One of more of the parties may appeal. Depending on the facts of the case and what transpires at trial, one of more parties may have appealable issues. For instance, if a party believes that the judge made an erroneously ruling about what evidence could or could not be heard by the jury, the party might be able to appeal.

What Constitutes a Slip and Fall Case?

Determining Liability

To prevail in a slip and fall case, the plaintiff must establish that one of these three scenarios occurred:

  1. The liable party created the danger that caused the fall, such as a store employee spilling liquid or breaking a stair;
  2. The liable part knew of the danger, but did nothing to correct it, for example, if the store owner or employee saw the spill or hazardous condition and did not clean it up; or
  3. The liable party should have reasonably discovered the danger and corrected it before the accident, for example, a grocery store owner could reasonably expect product spills in his store, and must inspect for them to protect customers.

Who May Sue

The legal term for a party having a right to sue is “standing.” Standing is determined as a matter of law. Usually, an injured person has standing to sue, but there are some rules regarding who can sue where. For instance, the law provides that a person injured in an automobile accident in Georgia cannot sue the other party in Florida. In estate disputes, a beneficiary, a personal representative, or other interested party, might have the right to sue, depending on the facts of the case.

Sometimes, parties request a court determine the rights of the parties without ordering that anything damages be paid. This often arises in cases of contractual interpretation. In those cases, either party can file a declaratory judgment action requesting the court to interpret contractual or statutory language.

When You May Sue

A claimant does not have an unlimited time to sue. The suit must be filed before the statute of limitation expires. For example, medical malpractice suits must be filed within two years of when the patient knew or should have known of the malpractice, while auto accident lawsuits must be filed within four years of the accident. Each type of claim has its own deadline for filing suit and the analysis of when the limitations period begins to run can be complex, so it is best to contact an attorney as soon as possible.

Damages and Requested Relief

Injured parties may be able to receive compensation for their injuries. Depending on the type of injury, damages awards may include:

Contract damages including restitution, rescission, reformation, specific performance of the contract, and more.

Monetary damages including medical bills, compensation for pain and suffering, lost wages, lost future earnings, funeral expenses, and more.

Punitive damages, in some cases, where the defendant’s misconduct was grossly negligent or intentional, the jury or judge imposes punitive damages to punish the behavior.

Injunctive Relief

Equitable Relief

You need attorneys who will represent you throughout the process. It is best to hire an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your options, and who will lead you through the entire process with knowledge. The attorneys at Matthews Eastmoore have experience handling all types of civil litigation cases. If you feel that you have been injured by the wrongdoing of another, do not hesitate to call us at 941-366-8888 or schedule a free consultation. We are here to help.

Civil Litigation

Although you may get a different impression from the media, in fact, less than five percent of all civil disputes ever go to trial. Most cases resolve before trial, either because the parties come to a settlement agreement, or because a party was able to prevail based on undisputed facts, by winning what is called a motion for summary judgment.

In many instances, the parties settle. Many parties eventually decide to settle because avoiding trial is more cost effective; settling before trial allows the parties to reach an agreement rather than letting a judge or jury make the decision; and trials can take a long time and use a lot of mental and emotional energy. Thus, reaching a settlement can help clients avoid the costs and challenges of going to court, and allow them to move on with their lives.

Common Cases

Civil litigation includes many types of lawsuits that are not criminal lawsuits. A criminal case is brought by a prosecutor and the verdict may include time in prison, while civil cases are brought between private citizens or companies and do not result in jail or prison sentences.

Cases include business versus business cases, such as contract disputes, people versus people cases, such as personal injury, and people versus business cases such as shareholders rights. Common case examples include:

  • Accident and Personal Injury including slip and fall cases, auto accidents, motorcycle accidents, and more.
  • Contract disputes and Business Law including real estate disputes, construction defects, breached contracts, and more.
  • Malpractice including legal, medical, and other professional malpractice.
  • Trusts and Estate litigation including breach of fiduciary duty, undue influence, will contests, interference with expectations, and more.
  • Wrongful death including death from criminal behavior, traffic accidents, workplace accidents, medical malpractice, and more.

In any of these categories, an injured party may seek damages in court, and should contact an attorney for professional legal representation.

Process of a Civil Lawsuit

Whether commercial or personal, most civil litigation follows this timeline:

  1. An alleged incident that leads to damages: Whether a contract dispute, personal injury, or construction or real estate matter.
  2. The complaint, or filing of the suit: The injured party and his or her lawyer files a complaint to notify the court that he or she is seeking compensation for the injuries or damages received.
  3. Notification of the parties: The parties to a lawsuit must be personally served notice that there is a complaint against them.
  4. Response by the other party: After receiving the complaint, the other party makes his or her response.
  5. Discovery period: In which both sides ask for and give documents related to the lawsuit to the other side.
  6. Settlement negotiations: May take place here. Before trial begins, the sides may agree to a binding settlement in which the wrongdoer pays an agreed-upon sum to the victim, thereby avoiding the time and cost of a full trial.
  7. Motions: At trial, both sides may move for summary judgement by stating that the facts and the undisputed evidence are clear, and there is no question what the verdict should be.
  8. Trial: The two sides present the law and the facts to the judge and the jury, who will make a decision.
  9. Verdict: The judge or jury issue their final decision.
  10. Appeal: The parties may appeal the court’s decision, but they usually cannot appeal a settlement they both agreed to.

Who May Sue

Usually, the suit is brought by the injured party, or representatives for the injured party in the case of the party being a minor or in the case that the injury resulted in death.

When You May Sue

The civil suit must be filed before the statute of limitation deadline in the state. Statute of limitations are different for different types of cases. For example, medical malpractice suits must be filed within two years while auto accident lawsuits must begin within four years.

There are few exceptions to these deadlines, so it is best to contact an attorney as soon as possible.

Damages

Injured parties may be able to receive compensation for their injuries. Depending on the type of injury, damages awards may include:

  1. Contract damages including restitution, rescission, reformation, specific performance of the contract, and more.
  2. Monetary damages including medical bills, compensation for pain and suffering, lost wages, lost future earnings, funeral expenses, and more.
  3. Punitive damages, in some cases, the defendant’s conduct was so dangerous that the court imposes punitive damages to punish the behavior.

You need attorneys who will represent you throughout the process. It’s best to hire an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your options, and who will lead you through the entire process with knowledge. The attorneys at Matthews Eastmoore have experience handling all types of civil litigation cases. If you feel that you have been injured by the wrongdoing of another, do not hesitate to call us at 941-366-8888 or schedule a free consultation. We are here to help.

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The use of the Internet or this form for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form. We do not undertake representation of your claims until all parties involved have entered into a signed agreement. If we have not entered into a signed agreement with you, you may want to speak with other attorneys regarding your claims since statutes of limitations may apply.