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What should I know about civil lawsuits in Georgia?

Authored By: GeorgiaLegalAid.org
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Civil lawsuits in Georgia

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What is a civil case?

In a civil case, the parties use the court system to decide a private argument between them. The person bringing the civil case is called the plaintiff. The party who is sued is called the defendant. The plaintiff files a document called a complaint with the proper court. The complaint is where the plaintiff says that the defendant either:

  • Owes the plaintiff some legal obligation, such as money, or

  • Has violated some legal right of the plaintiff. An example would be the right not to have one's property damaged, as can happen in an auto accident.

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How does a civil lawsuit begin?

Before filing (or bringing) a lawsuit, you must decide which court has jurisdiction over the case. Jurisdiction has two main parts:

  • Subject matter. This means the court must hear the kind of case you want to bring.

  • Personal jurisdiction. This means the court must have the power to enforce laws against the people involved in the case. The court may have subject matter jurisdiction if:

    • The people involved live in the area

 

The court must have both subject matter and personal jurisdiction to hear a case. 

 

Filing a complaint

To start a civil action, the plaintiff must file a complaint with the appropriate court. Filing means delivering the complaint to the court clerk. The complaint is a legal document prepared by the plaintiff or their attorney. The complaint: 

  • Sets out the plaintiff's version of the facts supporting the claim against the defendant.

  • Indicates which court has jurisdiction, and 

  • If appropriate, it names the amount of money the plaintiff is asking the defendant to pay.

 

Serving the summons

The plaintiff in a civil case also must tell the defendant that a claim is being made against them. This notification is very important. The defendant is usually notified by being served (or presented with) a copy of the complaint and a paper called a summons. The summons tells the defendant that they have 30 days from the date of receiving the summons to respond to the claims made in the plaintiff's complaint.

 

In Georgia, a summons is usually hand-delivered to the defendant at his or her home. The server is usually the county sheriff or some other officer of the court. Serving is not always easy.

 

Filing an answer

After receiving the summons, the defendant should respond to the plaintiff's claims. The response is called the answer. The answer is a legal document that is filed with the clerk of the court. In it, the defendant admits or denies the allegations made in the complaint. The answer may also state the defendant's legal defenses to the complaint.

 

The defendant's answer must also set out any claims that the defendant may have against the plaintiff arising from the event that resulted in the plaintiff's action. A defendant's claim against a plaintiff is known as a counterclaim.

 

The plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's answer are the basic pleadings in any civil case. The pleadings establish what factual and legal issues are in dispute and what must be decided in the trial. 

 

If a defendant does not file an answer, it is called a default. If the defendant defaults, they lose the case. It is therefore very important to respond when served with a complaint.  In some cases, a default can be reopened, but it is very difficult to do so without a lawyer.

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What happens after a civil case is filed?

Discovery

Once a civil case is filed, it takes several months (sometimes over a year) for it to come to trial. 

 

In most civil cases, the lawyers for the parties will start pretrial discovery. Discovery is how both parties find out about the other side's case.

 

Discovery might include:

  • Interrogatories. These are written questions that one party sends to the other. Each side must answer the questions in writing. If you do not respond, there may be sanctions and penalties by the court.

  • Request for production of documents. In this legal document, one side asks the other to make certain documents available. This procedure is often used to "discover" medical bills, photos of accident scenes, repair bills, estimates, etc. Failure to respond to requests can result in sanctions and penalties by the court.

  • Depositions. A deposition is oral testimony of a plaintiff, defendant, or witness taken under oath. It is recorded by a court reporter who puts it into a printed or typed form that becomes the actual deposition. 

 

Settlement

It is likely that the parties will try to work out a settlement agreement before the case goes to trial. The most common forms of settling disputes peacefully without going to court are negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. 

  • Negotiation. In negotiation, the parties talk directly to each other to reach a settlement. 

  • Mediation. In mediation, one or more persons (or mediators) help the disputing parties reach an agreement on how to handle their problem. The mediator does not judge or take sides; he or she merely guides the parties to a settlement that is agreeable to both sides. As in negotiation, the final decision is voluntary. Both sides must agree for it to be legally binding.

  • Arbitration. In arbitration, one or more persons (or arbitrators) hear the arguments and facts of both sides. Then they make a decision as to what to do. Arbitration is like a private trial but less formal. Unlike a mediator, an arbitrator does judge and take sides. Unlike a trial, arbitration does not usually include all of the detailed, complex rules of a court. As in mediation, the disputants must agree to enter into the process for it to be legal. However, in arbitration, the disputants agree in advance to be bound by whatever decision the arbitrator reaches. 

 

Pre-trial motions

There are also a variety of motions that each party might file with the court. These motions ask the judge to make decisions about issues before the trial begins. There are many pretrial motions, including motions:

  • To exclude certain evidence, or

  • To rule that the case should be dismissed. 

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What happens at a civil trial?

If the civil case is not resolved, there will be a trial to decide the case. A trial may be decided completely by a judge or by a judge and jury. The right to a trial by jury in civil cases is guaranteed by the Georgia Constitution. This means that either side has the right to demand a jury.

 

In each legal case, questions of law and fact must be decided by the court.

  • Questions of law can only be decided by the judge. 

  • Questions of fact are decided by the judge if there is no jury. Otherwise, they are decided by the jury.

 

A trial in a civil case generally follows the same schedule:

  • Jury Selection. If there is going to be a jury, the first step in the process is choosing the jury. This is called voir dire.

  • Opening statements. Each side gets a chance to make a statement about the case. The plaintiff goes first and then the defendant. 

  • Presentation of the case. Each side then presents their case. The plaintiff goes first and then the defendant. They may call witnesses, cross-examine witnesses and introduce evidence. There are rules about what kinds of evidence will be admitted at a trial. The basic rules are:

    • Facts that tend to help a trier of fact (the jury) arrive at the truth should be admitted as evidence. 

    • Facts that do not aid the jury in the search for truth should not be admitted.

  • Closing statements. In closing arguments, both sides comment directly on the evidence and witnesses. They argue the matters they feel have been proven by the evidence. They cannot talk about anything that was not presented as evidence during the trial.

  • Verdict. The verdict is the outcome of the case. The judge or jury considers the evidence and then announces their decision.

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What can I do? +

Contents


How do I file a complaint or petition in civil court?

You file the complaint or petition with the clerk of court. You generally want to file in the court in the county where the person you are suing lives.

 

Along with the complaint, the court must be told where to serve (give it a copy of it to) the defendant. Be ready to give an address and directions for places that are hard to find.

 

You might also need to pay a filing fee. It usually costs money to begin a legal action in court. If you have a low income, however, you should be able to file a case without paying a filing fee. To keep from paying a filing fee, you have to file a written document explaining why you cannot pay. This statement is called an "affidavit of poverty" or an "in forma pauperis affidavit." This document has to be notarized.

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What can I do if I am unhappy with the outcome of my civil case?

If dissatisfied with the decision, either party in a civil case can ask for an appeal. Then a higher or appellate court will review the decision of the trial court. 

 

If the appellate court rejects the request for appeal, the decision of the trial court stands. If the appellate court hears the appeal, it can:

  • decide to let the trial court's decision stand,

  • reverse the trial court's decision, or

  • in a civil case, ask the trial court to rehear part or all of the trial.

 

If the case is sent back to the trial court, the parties may agree to settle out of court instead. Sometimes, the decision of an appellate court can be appealed to another appellate court.

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What are grounds for appeal?

An appeal, however, must be filed within a certain period of time after the trial court decision becomes final. Generally, appealing parties must state why they think something was wrong with the trial court decision. These reasons are called the grounds for appeal. They must involve questions of law.

 

An appealing party cannot argue that the trial court made the wrong decisions on the facts because the trier of fact's determination of the facts is final-a basic element of our legal system. The judge or jury is considered to be in the best position to evaluate the evidence, such as the testimony of a witness and how credible it appears to be. Only in extraordinary circumstances can the facts be reviewed.

 

There are, however, a number of acceptable grounds for appealing a case. The losing party may:

  • challenge the manner in which the trial was conducted.

  • argue that the judge allowed irrelevant, prejudicial evidence to be presented.

  • argue that the wrong rule of law was applied by the court in declaring the rights and duties of the parties.

  • argue that no evidence was presented that supported the jury's findings.

  • although it rarely occurs, show that additional evidence has been discovered after the trial that would justify reconsidering the case at the trial level. The new evidence must clearly make a difference to the outcome of the trial. Also, it has to be something that could not have been discovered before the trial.

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Last Review and Update: Dec 03, 2020