Skip to Content Top

The Anatomy of a Civil Lawsuit


The thought of being sued, or filing a lawsuit against someone else, can be stressful and overwhelming. Questions such as how long will it take? How much will it cost? What is the risk to my family, bank account, assets, etc.? What are my chances of winning or losing? These are all very important questions to discuss with your attorney. Another important topic is “what can I expect during this processes?” Or said another way, what are the basic pieces to the puzzle of a lawsuit? In order to make informed decisions, you need to know what you can expect if you are involved in a lawsuit. The below information is a general overview of the basic steps or phases involved in a lawsuit.

Step 1 – Initial Pleadings

The first phase of any lawsuit involves filing initial documents with the court, or what are commonly referred to as “pleadings.” The very first step in a lawsuit is when one party files a complaint. The complaint contains factual and legal allegations of one party (the plaintiff) seeking some type of relief or damages against another party. The party being sued (the defendant) then has to file an answer to the complaint to either admit or deny the allegations in the complaint. The filing of the complaint and answer sets the stage for the rest of the case and gives each side a basic idea of the claims and defenses that will be at issue moving forward.

Step 2 – Discovery

The discovery phase of a lawsuit is arguably, no pun intended, where most cases are won or lost. The discovery phase is just what it sounds like— both sides have the opportunity to “discover” information from each other about the lawsuit, including the facts supporting the claims alleged, and facts supporting any defenses. There are multiple layers of discovery. First, the parties exchange written questions with each other. This is referred to as “written discovery.” During this process, each side generally is allowed to ask thirty (30) written questions and also to request any documents that may be relevant to the case. As you might imagine, the written discovery stage can be very time consuming and document intensive, depending on the type of case.

After written discovery, the parties typically schedule depositions of witnesses as well as the parties themselves. During the deposition stage, the attorneys for each side have the opportunity to ask live questions to witnesses and the parties to the case who are under oath to answer truthfully. The depositions are also transcribed by a court reporter so that there is a written record of the conversation. This “deposition” step in the case is crucial for both sides as each party develops their respective theory of the case and shores up arguments for potential settlement negotiations, dispositive motions or trial.

After depositions of witnesses and the parties, certain cases may involve expert depositions. In cases where an expert such as a doctor, engineer, construction or financial expert is useful, these individuals will also give deposition testimony. This gives both sides the opportunity to prove aspects of their case, or defense, that may require the expertise of an expert.

Step 3 – Dispositive Motions

After discovery is completed, which can take six months to one year or longer in some cases, the defendant will typically file motions with the court to attempt to get all or a portion of a lawsuit dismissed on technical or legal grounds before proceeding to trial. Once discovery is complete and both parties’ “cards on the table,” there may be an argument that a party has not or cannot prove their case. Or there may be a legal defense that warrants dismissing the case at the pre-trial stage. There are a myriad of reasons why a case may be dismissed at this stage, and this is beyond the scope of this article. The most common dispositive motion filed at this stage is a motion for summary judgment. These types of motions are most commonly utilized by defendants and if successful, the judge will dismiss the case outright and this avoids the need for further litigation and of course a trial.

Step 4 – Trial

After any dispositive motions and pretrial filings, the case finally heads to trial. Depending on the nature of the case, the case will ultimately be decided by either a jury or a judge. The majority of lawsuits never make it to this stage. In this day and age, most litigants find that settlement is often times the best way to mitigate their risks and to avoid further expenses. In the event settlement efforts are successful, at this point, the parties have put forth the evidence supporting their claims or defenses and it’s now time for a resolution. Depending on the case, it could be 1-2 years, or more, from the date of the filing of the complaint until a case heads to trial. During trial, witnesses, experts and parties will testify, documents will be submitted and the Judge or jury will be asked to render a judgment and either award damages/relief to the plaintiff or rule in favor of the defendant. At last, the case will be over, well not so fast.

Step 5 – Appeal

After trial, you may think your case is finally over, you have won or lost and can move on. That is not always the case. After trial, there is a specified amount of time where either party can appeal the outcome of trial. The appeal process is not to give either party a second bite at the appeal, but rather to address legal arguments, mistakes or errors that may have occurred at the trial level. If the case is appealed in state court, the next level is the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The appeal process can extend the case an additional six months to even a year in some cases. If a party still is not satisfied after the court of appeals renders a ruling, there is one final option- appealing to the Tennessee Supreme Court. However, the Tennessee Supreme Court picks which cases it will entertain, and the overwhelming majority of cases are declined for review by this court.

As you can see, there are numerous steps involved in a lawsuit. It is important to find a lawyer that is skilled in all areas of legal practice, including trial and appeal experience.

Blake Garner is an attorney at Santel | Garner. Blake has extensive litigation experience and has successfully handled hundreds of lawsuits including at the trial and appeal level. Blake’s practice involves commercial litigation, insurance defense, real estate, and employment law.

This blog is made available by Santel | Garner for educational purposes only as well as to provide general information and a general overview of the law, not provide specific legal advice. By using this blog and website, you understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and Santel | Garner. This blog and website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your state.