The Lawsuit Process
One of the questions that I frequently receive from my clients is whether we are going to Court. As part of that question, I often see some confusion between filing a lawsuit and having a trial. That confusion is understandable as many people often only have one or two lawsuits in their lifetime, if any. So, if you are unsure what to expect with your lawsuit, you are not alone.
In Maryland, the majority of our legal lawsuits are filed in one of Maryland’s Circuit Courts. When I talk about filing a lawsuit, I am talking about filing a Complaint against an adverse party (i.e., a Defendant). The filing of the Complaint formally commences a case within the Circuit Court system. Once a Complaint is filed, the Civil Clerk’s Office will issue a Writ of Summons. From there, you (through your attorney) will cause the Complaint and Writ of Summons to be served on the adverse party. Depending on your lawyer’s litigation strategy, you may also serve written discovery requests (i.e., Interrogatories, Request for Production of Documents, and/or Request for Admissions) upon the Defendant. Once the Defendant has been served, he/she/it will typically have anywhere from 30-60 days to file a response to the Complaint. That response often comes in the form of an Answer or Motion to Dismiss/For Summary Judgment. If the Defendant simply files an Answer (a document that typically generally denies any liability to you), then the Court will issue a Scheduling Order. That Scheduling Order will set various deadlines in your case. Your failure to adhere to a deadline can result in adverse action being taken against you.
In terms of the deadlines, you will often see a date to conduct mediation by. A mediation is often referred to as a form of alternative dispute resolution (i.e., a means of settling your dispute without a trial). With a mediation, you have an assigned mediator that will work with you and the opposing party to see if you can reach a resolution. Typically, you are represented by counsel at the mediation, as is the other party. If a resolution is achieved, then you will likely sign a release and dismiss your case thereby bringing an end to the lawsuit. So, you were technically in court when you filed the lawsuit, but you never went to trial. If you cannot settle at mediation, many Courts will also require you to attend a Pretrial Conference wherein the Judge overseeing the conference may explore the concept of settlement. And, if you cannot settle at that point, then this may be the last formal opportunity to resolve the case, unless the Parties agree to attend a private mediation. And, sometimes, the parties (through counsel) will initiate direct settlement talks in the days and weeks heading to trial. And, ultimately, if the case does not settle and you do not lose on any motion filed by the defense, then your case is likely heading to a trial.
So, as you can see, there are often multiple times to resolve a case short of trial, so the fact that you have filed a lawsuit and are “in court” does not mean that you will have a trial. Please note that there are some nuances and exceptions to the items delineated above, particularly with respect to which Courts typically order mediation, etc. Any attorney that you retain should alert you as to any important Court deadlines and of any opportunity to secure a resolution.