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Steps in Trial Process – Civil Litigation

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Steps in Trial Process – Civil Litigation," in The Business Professor, updated January 6, 2015, last accessed April 9, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/steps-trial-process/.
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Steps in a Civil Trial
This video explains the various steps in a civil trial.

Next Article: Burden of Proof in a Civil Trial


What is the general process or steps involved in a civil trial?

A civil trial begins with the pleadings. Following the pleadings, the parties will generally submit a number of motions to the court for various reasons. This is generally known as pretrial matters. After the pre-trial matters conclude, the trial process begins. A jury trial begins with the parties selecting a jury through the voir dire process. Once the jury is selected, the trial commences. The judge opens the case by going on the record and announcing the case and the parties to the dispute. The pleadings become part of the official record of trial. The parties are then given the opportunity to make an opening statement to the jury. The plaintiff goes first and the defendant is given the opportunity to follow. Often, the defendant will defer delivering the opening statement until after the plaintiff has delivered her entire case.

Following the opening statement, the plaintiff will present all of the evidence and witnesses to support her case. Once the plaintiff completes her presentation of evidence, the Defendant will move the court for a directed verdict. If the motion is denied, the defendant is allowed to present evidence in rebuttal of the plaintiff’s case. Once the defendant completes her presentation of evidence, the jurisdiction may allow the plaintiff a chance to rebut the defendant’s case with any additional presentation of evidence. At the conclusion of the plaintiff’s “rebuttal”, the defendant is allowed to the opportunity to rebut the plaintiff’s rebuttal. This is known as the “surrebuttal”. At the conclusion of the surrebuttal, all parties rest. At this point, the defendant will again move the court for summary judgment based upon the presentation of all evidence. If the motion is denied, the court will then allow the parties to make a closing statement to the jury. After closing statements, the presentation of evidence is closed. The remainder of the case belongs to the judge and jury.

Discussion: Which steps in the trial do you feel are most important or determinative of guilt or innocence?

Discussion Input

  • The obvious answer to this question is the jury deliberation stage. Others might argue, however, that the most important step for determining guilty or innocence is the pleading stage. This is where the plaintiff may go first through opening statement and then proceed with the case and tendered evidence in support of their suit. The defendant may petition the court for a directed verdict if the plaintiff has failed to prove their case. If the court denies this motion, the defendant will have to present his or her evidence in rebutting the case of the plaintiff. Once surrebuttal is completed the defendant may again petition the court for summary judgment based on the evidence that has been produced before the court. Many businesses depend upon winning a directed verdict or summary judgment motion. Juries tend to favor individual plaintiffs; thus, a business is at a steep disadvantage if the case goes to jury deliberation. As such, for businesses, the early stages of trial are often the most important.

Practice Question: The company that you work for is being sued. You are going to be called to testify at trial. You do some research on the trial process. In a concise paragraph, explain the process for a civil action in a manner that anyone can understand it.

Proposed Answer

  • A civil suit is initiated through the filling of pleadings, after the pleadings has been filled then the matter will go for pre-trial. The pre-trial process basically deals with how the matter will proceed and it is also at this stage that the court examines if the matter can be considered frivolous or it has merit to proceed to full trial. After the pre-trial, the matter will proceed to full trial. In the matter is a jury trial then it will begin by selecting the members, once the jury is selected then the trial can commence. Both parties will be given an opportunity to make their opening statements. The plaintiff will then commence the suit by making their submissions after the close of the plaintiff’s case then the defendant will present their case. The plaintiff can rebut the issues and facts raised by the defendant, the defendant can also rebut to the issues raised by the plaintiff in the rebuttal. Both parties will make their closing statement after which the judge or the jury will deliver the judgment.

Academic Research

Parness, Jeffrey A., Technologies and the Trial Process: The 2013 Allerton Conference (September 10, 2013). 101 Illinois Bar Journal, 638 (Dec. 2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2323637

Dilloff, Neil Joel, Civil Pre-Trial Practice, 2019 Revised Edition (March 1, 2019). Civil Pre-Trial Practice, 2019 Revised Edition; U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3345298

Langbein, John H., The Disappearance of Civil Trial in the United States (August 3, 2012). 122 Yale Law Journal 522 (2012); Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 256; Yale Law & Economics Research Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2123386

Harmon, Mark B., The Pre-Trial Process at the ICTY as a Means of Ensuring Expeditious Trials: A Potential Unrealized (May 2007). Journal of International Criminal Justice, Vol. 5, Issue 2, pp. 377-393, 2007. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1156680 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jicj/mqm004

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