If you learned about lawsuits from TV, you may expect a lawsuit to be quick and exciting. You may even have the quaint belief that lawsuits reliably deliver justice. In reality, lawsuits are slow, boring, and expensive. And justice is one possible outcome, assuming you can afford it.
Since you may find yourself dragged into a suit against your will, let’s look at what to expect.
More than you think. A simple defamation suit will likely cost at least $10,000 to defend against. If things get complicated, the cost could be much greater. You probably won’t be able to recover your costs even if you win the suit.
Longer than you think. A case that goes to trial will probably take at least six months and could easily drag on for several years.
The exact process will vary from state to state, but most lawsuits look something like this:
The lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files a formal complaint with the court. The complaint lays out the facts that underly the lawsuit, establishes the harm the plaintiff has suffered, and says what remedies they are seeking. In some states, the complaint is delivered by a formal process known as service.
Soon after receiving the complaint, you must file a formal response (formally known as a responsive pleading). Your response lays out your version of the facts and says how you intend to defend yourself.
If you don’t file a response by the deadline, the plaintiff may win the case by default. The deadline can be very short: in Washington, you must respond within 20 days.
Both parties engage in discovery, the formal process of obtaining evidence before the trial. Discovery can include asking formal questions of the other party, questioning witnesses under oath, and getting court-ordered access to the other party’s email or other documents.
Many states require mediation before a case goes to trial. Mediation is typically a formal process conducted by a professional mediator.
A formal settlement can end a lawsuit before it goes to trial. A settlement might involve paying damages, issuing an apology or retraction, or any other negotiated resolution.
If the case is not resolved by mediation, settlement, or some other means, it will go to trial. Defamation trials typically last somewhere between one day and two weeks, but that varies widely depending on the complexity of the case. The case might be tried by a jury (a jury trial) or just a judge (a bench trial).
The final result of a trial is the judgment, which determines who prevailed on each point and awards damages if appropriate.
The losing party can appeal the judgment to a higher court if they believe the trial was mishandled or there was an error in the judgment. You can’t appeal a case just because you disagree with the outcome.