Navigating the Legal Odyssey: A Comprehensive Timeline of Civil Litigation in California

  1. Introduction

Civil litigation in California is a multifaceted and time-consuming process, often likened to a marathon made up of repeated sprints and ending with a long sprint to the finish line.

This article offers an in-depth exploration of the various stages and critical elements of a typical civil litigation matter in the Golden State, from the preliminary pre-suit investigation to the culmination of post-trial appeals.

  1. Pre-Suit Investigation and Drafting of a Complaint

Preparation and research: The journey begins with a meticulous pre-suit investigation. Attorneys collect evidence, interview witnesses, and conduct legal research to assess the potential merits and challenges of the case.

Jurisdiction and venue: Careful consideration is given to jurisdiction and venue to ensure the lawsuit is filed in the appropriate court giving the most advantage to the plaintiff. Defendants should also give this consideration, as they sometimes have options to move the case to a different, more advantageous court.

Drafting the complaint: If the decision to proceed with litigation is made, the plaintiff’s attorney drafts a complaint that outlines the specific claims and allegations against the defendant. The complaint serves as the formal initiation of the lawsuit and spells out why the plaintiff believes they have a claim, and what they want from the court. Drafting the complaint is a collaborative process, working with the client to tell their story, while being careful to give the correct amount of detail.

  1. Pleading Phase 

Filing and serving the complaint: The plaintiff files the complaint in court, and the defendant is served with a summons and a copy of the complaint. This initiates the formal legal process and helps to define the scope of the subject matter of the lawsuit, setting boundaries for the rest of the case. This can sometimes take a while, particularly if a defendant evades the process server trying to serve them with the lawsuit.

Demurrers and motions to dismiss: In response, the defendant may file a demurrer (in state court) or a motion to dismiss (in federal court). These pleadings challenge the sufficiency of the complaint, alleging that it fails to state a valid cause of action. Typically, the court cannot consider outside evidence and must treat the allegations in the complaint as true, and the defending party is arguing that the law does not give the plaintiff a remedy, even if the court believes everything the plaintiff says in their complaint. 

Pleading amendments: The pleading phase may involve multiple rounds of amendments as the parties argue over the adequacy of the allegations and the scope and boundaries of the case.

Answers and cross-complaints: The defendant may respond with an answer and potentially file a cross-complaint against the plaintiff or third parties. Cross-complaints can expand the scope of the lawsuit.

Being “at issue” and getting a trial date: Once all complaints and cross-complaints have been answered, the case is “at issue,” meaning the boundaries have been set. Typically, many trial courts will wait until the case is “at issue” to set a trial date. Once a trial date is set, there is a now a ticking clock within which the parties must get their case ready for trial.

  1. Discovery

Generally: While parties can go out and perform their own investigations of the facts, there is often information that they can only get from the opposing party in the lawsuit. Given the adversarial nature of litigation, California courts have created rules to help facilitate the exchange of such information to avoid surprises and ensure that both sides can put their best foot forward at trial. The downside is that discovery is often time consuming and expensive.

Written requests: Both parties engage in written discovery, which includes requests for documents, interrogatories (written questions), and requests for admission. These tools help uncover evidence, facts, and potential weaknesses in the opposing party’s case.

Oral discovery: Depositions, where key witnesses and experts are questioned under oath, are a critical component of discovery. They provide valuable insight into witness credibility, facts, and legal theories.

Discovery disputes: Parties often face disputes related to discovery requests, necessitating court intervention to compel responses or protect privileged information.

  1. Dispositive (Summary Judgment) Motions

At various stages of the litigation, either party may file a motion for summary judgment, seeking to dispose of some or all claims before trial. These motions argue that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute, making a trial unnecessary, so the court can make a decision based on the law rather than facts. The opposing party responds with arguments and evidence challenging the motion’s assertions, trying to establish that there is some fact issue for the judge or jury to determine at trial. These motions often help narrow or focus the issues for determination at trial as the parties and the court zero in on what facts and issues are truly in dispute, and which ones are not truly debatable. 

  1. Mediation

Mediation is a common step in California litigation, allowing the parties to engage in settlement negotiations facilitated by a neutral (and hopefully, highly experienced) mediator. It often takes place before trial to explore opportunities for resolving the dispute amicably. Settlement by mediation avoids the uncertainty of a jury trial, and if the case does not settle, helps the parties to flush out some of the weaknesses in their case and better prepare for trial.

  1. Expert Witness Discovery

In California, expert witness discovery is a pivotal aspect of civil litigation. Attorneys engage in a rigorous process to identify, disclose, and challenge expert witnesses. Parties must provide comprehensive expert witness lists, declarations outlining the experts’ opinions and the bases for those opinions, and any related reports. Opposing parties have the opportunity to depose these experts, probing their qualifications, methodologies, and the reliability of their conclusions. Expert testimony plays a crucial role in shaping the outcome of trials, making the discovery and examination of expert witnesses a strategic and often fiercely contested element of the litigation process in the state.

  1. Pretrial Preparation

Developing a theme: Attorneys work to refine their case strategy and develop a compelling narrative, or theme, for presentation to the jury.

Compiling exhibits: Key exhibits and evidence are gathered, organized, and prepared for presentation during trial.

Witness preparation: Witnesses are meticulously prepared for their testimony, addressing potential areas of vulnerability or impeachment.

Motions in limine: Attorneys file motions in limine to exclude certain evidence or testimony that may be prejudicial or irrelevant. These can help a lawyer to shape the scope and direction of the trial well in advance, give them more certainty regarding how the facts at trial will shake out, and avoid nasty or prejudicial surprises at trial that could prejudice the jury.

Preparing jury instructions: Attorneys draft and argue over the wording of jury instructions, which are critical in guiding the jury’s deliberations. Those instructions are critical to shaping the attorneys arguments in closing and often serve as a roadmap for a jury when used properly. These are often debated prior to and even in the middle of trial.

Matrices of elements and evidence: Complex cases may involve the creation of matrices that outline the elements of claims and the evidence supporting those elements, helping attorneys stay organized during trial.

Briefs for the court: Trial briefs are prepared and submitted to the court to spell out evidentiary and legal issues to help spell out a party’s view of what the general scope and tempo of the trial should look like. They often lay out the law, potential conflicts related to issues on evidence and jury instructions and help the trial court to get a birds’ eye view of the trial to help the trial court in making decisions that affect the trial. It is critical that counsel lay out a clear vision for how the trial should proceed.

  1. Trial

Uncertainty and fluidity: Trials are fluid and uncertain by nature. Witness availability, unexpected testimony, evidentiary rulings, court instructions, and even trial mischief by parties, witnesses, or even jurors can significantly impact the case’s direction. Attorneys must adapt to the evolving circumstances.

Logistics: Managing logistics is paramount. Coordinating witnesses, scheduling court time, ensuring exhibits and evidence are presented effectively, and addressing unexpected issues are all part of the logistical challenge. A trial attorney supported by experienced and prepared support staff will ensure that the trial lawyer can focus on the trial at hand while support staff helps to keep the presentation on track and on message.

Jury selection: Jury selection is a critical phase in civil litigation strategy. Attorneys aim to choose jurors who are impartial, open-minded, and potentially sympathetic to their client’s case. This process involves questioning prospective jurors to identify biases, preconceptions, or life experiences that could impact their ability to render a fair verdict, and to weed out jurors who are unable to follow the court’s directions and make decisions fairly. The goal is to construct a jury that is receptive to the attorney’s arguments and case theme, ultimately maximizing the chances of a favorable outcome for their client. It is also an opportunity to speak directly to each of the jurors and preview or hint concepts, potential biases, and themes to the jury before opening arguments even begin.

Opening argument: An opening argument serves as a roadmap, outlining the case’s key points and establishing trust with the jury. It creates a strong first impression and presents the case’s theme.

Testimony and admission of documents: During the trial, attorneys take testimony from witnesses and introduce documentary evidence to substantiate their case. Witness examination, both direct and cross, is a key strategy for presenting facts and credibility to the jury. The admission of documents, including exhibits and records, helps support the narrative and legal arguments. Attorneys must adhere to rules of evidence, objecting to prejudicial or irrelevant information while advocating for the admissibility of crucial evidence. Effective presentation of testimony and documents is essential to building a compelling case and influencing the jury’s decision in favor of their client.

Closing argument: Closing arguments summarize the evidence, reinforce the case’s theme, and aim to persuade the jury. Attorneys appeal to jurors’ emotions and make a final request for a specific verdict based on the evidence and the law. They require the attorney to refer back to testimony and documents, and then link them to the court’s instructions on the law to spell out a roadmap for how to make decisions based on the court’s instructions. It is also a final plea to the jury to both the hearts and minds of the jurors and to make one last personal impression on them.

  1. Post-Trial Motions

After the trial concludes, strict deadlines apply for post-trial motions. These may include motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), new trial motions, and motions to correct or amend the judgment. These motions can be critical to either correct mistakes made during the trial, or potentially create a record for any appeal.

  1. Appeals

Issues on appeal: Appellate attorneys evaluate the trial record to identify issues most likely to be considered on appeal. These may include evidentiary rulings, jury instructions, and legal errors.

Reviewing the record: Appellate briefs are prepared and submitted, relying on a thorough review of the trial record, including transcripts, exhibits, and court rulings.

Drafting briefs: Attorneys often spend countless hours drafting lengthy briefs detailing the issues on appeal, analyzing voluminous cases addressing the same or similar issues. The idea is to synthesize the issues into their most digestible and persuasive form for the appellate judges to absorb and consider.

Oral arguments: Appeals often culminate in oral arguments before the appellate court, allowing attorneys to present their case to a panel of judges. There is often a give-and-take, with judges asking questions or actively challenging arguments presented by the lawyers.

  1. Conclusion

Civil litigation in California is a complex, time-consuming, and often unpredictable process. It demands not only legal expertise but also adaptability, resource management, and a steadfast commitment to the pursuit of justice within the framework of the law. Successfully navigating this legal odyssey requires a comprehensive understanding of each stage, meticulous preparation, and the ability to respond effectively to the myriad challenges that may arise along the way.