People call lawyers when they want answers to questions or when they want advice on something. And some of the questions that we get asked a lot are: What's going to happen with this lawsuit that I'm involved in? What do I need to do? How long is this going to take? How much is this going to cost? I mean, these are questions that we're talking through with potential clients all the time, so we wanted to give you a better understanding of what's going to be involved and what to expect. This information is limited to just to the Court of Common Pleas in Erie County, Pennsylvania.
Involvement in a lawsuit in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas will differ from a lawsuit in another county, state, or federal court. But generally speaking, the process is going to be pretty similar. This information does not apply to courts with magisterial district judges or "small claims courts," as they call them.
How does a lawsuit start?
There are a couple of different ways but generally, someone files a complaint, a writ of summons is issued, or there's an appeal from the district judge. Those are the three ways that a lawsuit starts. The most common type is to have someone file a complaint.
A complaint is a document where you lay out, line by line, sentence by sentence, exactly what the plaintiff thinks the defendant has done wrong. The writ of summons process, it's just an extra step, you'll see that a lot of times when someone is running up against a statute who has a statute of limitations deadline or some other deadline that they need to meet, it's a much simpler process to get the ball rolling, although eventually you still need to file a complaint.
After the complaint is filed, the defendant, the person who's being sued, has 20 days to file an answer. Unfortunately, all too often, the time it takes for this document to get served, it may be a couple of days or even more than a week until the defendant receives a copy of the lawsuit. Typically, the sheriff will serve it on somebody. And that's when people start panicking because they've received this document and seven days or 10 days have already elapsed from their 20-day deadline.
The good news is that 20-day deadline, even if you don't meet it, you're automatically given an extra 10 days. So you can rest easy knowing that you've got a little more time than you expect. And also the plaintiff, the person who filed the lawsuit, can grant an extension on that deadline. So don't panic because you think too much time has elapsed; instead call a lawyer who knows what they're doing so they could walk you through the process, tell you exactly how much time you have in case you've calculated it improperly, and possibly try and give an extension if the situation merits it.
How long will the lawsuit take?
So here's the thing with lawsuits: they take way more time and last a whole lot longer than anybody suspects. Most lawsuits can last many, many months, if not years. Some lawsuits have gone on for 10 or 15 years and are still unresolved.
One thing that people are surprised to hear is how long this process is going to take, and that's what we're going to map out for you here. People are also surprised to learn that most lawsuits never end up in a courtroom. The vast majority of lawsuits never go in front of the judge. Something like 1% of all lawsuits filed end up in a jury trial as you see on TV.
So it's very, very uncommon to see a lawsuit that ends up in a courtroom with what's called a trial on the merits, where you're calling all of these witnesses and introducing all of this evidence. If you are going to end up in court on a lawsuit it's going to be for some sort of preliminary matter or something that goes on throughout the process which we're going to explain. 1% of cases reach a jury; a larger percentage of cases get dismissed by a judge for some reason.
How does a lawsuit end?
So there was a procedural mistake, or there's some successful legal argument that gets made that the case is not allowed to proceed, and one party wins for one reason or another. And then the third reason, and this is the vast majority of lawsuits, is they get settled, somehow, the parties agree it's not worth the time and the money and the headaches for this case to proceed.
Entering the Lawsuit Highway
So "let's just agree to stop it": to start with the complaint and get to the point where there's an end to the lawsuit, this is a very long process. And we're going to show you all of the ways that lawsuits can end and how the procedure goes. We'll use the analogy of a highway. So if this is your highway, you enter the highway with the start of the lawsuit with the complaint being filed. As previously mentioned, when the complaint is filed, you've got 20 days to respond to it.
Exiting the Lawsuit Highway
If you miss that 20 days, they warn you that you've only got an extra 10 If the defendant does not file an answer to the lawsuit. That's one of our exits from the highway, what's called a "default judgment." So the defendant has failed to answer if the plaintiff can win. Assuming that the defendant does file some response to the complaint, there are two things that they can file.
Answering the Complaint
The first and most common probably is what's called an "answer," where the defendant goes through line by line and paragraph by paragraph and admits or denies or provides some other answer to every single line in the complaint. So oftentimes, you'll see what seems like a relatively straightforward lawsuit that may have 50 or 100 numbered paragraphs in the complaint, and the defendant has to go through and answer every single one of those in a written pleading called an answer.
The other thing, and we're going to put the answer on our highway here because that continues us down the lawsuit path. This other option of what can get filed in response to a lawsuit or what are called "preliminary objections," we call these POS, this is another potential exit from our lawsuit highway, if you will.
Preliminary objections are filed when a defendant says the plaintiff doesn't have a legal basis for the claim that they're bringing, and this gets into some complex, really confusing legal arguments. But it's why you want to talk to a lawyer about this because they may be able to find something creative to get a lawsuit dismissed at a very early stage.
So this is one way that you may get a case in front of a judge because if the defendant files preliminary objections, 30 days after the lawsuit is filed or more, the plaintiff can then reply to those preliminary objections. And you may have an oral argument in front of the judge.
Filing A New Matter
That's one way that you may get a case in front of a judge early on. If the defendant is successful with those preliminary objections, the lawsuit is done, or maybe part of the lawsuit is dismissed, but the rest of it goes. So this is a possible exit ramp off of our highway. But let's assume either the defendant hasn't filed preliminary objections, or those objections have been denied, then we're going to proceed with the lawsuit. When the answer is filed by the defendant, they can also file what's called a new matter. So now we've got our complaint filed by the plaintiff, we've got an answer filed by the defendant, and that defendant can also file what's called a new matter, this could be some sort of counterclaim or argument that they have against the plaintiff.
So then the plaintiff has to file a reply to that new matter. That's filed by the plaintiff, the person who initiated the lawsuit. If you're keeping track, there's 20 to 30 days minimum between the complaint and the answer being filed. And then another 20 to 30 days minimum for the reply to the new matter to be filed. And in a lot of cases, those deadlines are extended. So at this point, a minimum of 40 to 60 days have elapsed or probably more, and all we've done is file a bunch of paperwork with the court. But once those documents are all filed, we finished what's called the pleadings stage. The pleadings are the documents that we just ran through that get filed with the court. Once those are done, Another exit from our highway is what's called a Motion for Judgment on the pleadings. This is a way for a party to win a lawsuit without having to appear in court.
If for some reason the plaintiff or the defendant has said something in their complaint, or their answer, that would allow the other side to completely win the case, this is one option. These aren't really common types of filing. But you're going to file a motion and then you're also going to file a brief. And then you may again argue in front of the judge.
But this is one way after the pleadings are closed, that a lawsuit may be dismissed. So you need someone who understands the nuances of the legal argument to see if you can, if you can win that, or whether one of those should be filed. Sometimes you'll see a Motion for Judgment on the pleadings that get some of the lawsuit dismissed, but not all of it. So once we've gotten through the pleading phase, we enter what's called Discovery. And the discovery phase of lawsuits can go on for a long time. This is where a lot of lawsuits linger for any number of reasons.
Some of the things that you'll see in the discovery process are interrogatory ease, depositions, or you will see a subpoena. And other things can happen. But these are the most common within the rogatory. This is where one party sends a list of written questions to another party or sometimes someone who's not even a party to the lawsuit, and the other side has to answer them.
This process can be very time-consuming. Let's say the defendant, the person who's been sued, wants to ask questions to the plaintiff, they can send a large number of very detailed questions, and they can do what's called a request for production of documents. And the plaintiff may end up spending hours and hours and hours with their attorney reviewing all these questions, assembling the documents, and providing the answers to the other party. This is a very time-consuming process, but it's a very important part of the process. Because no matter what, when you file the lawsuit, there are going to be certain things that you don't know, this is your opportunity to ask the questions and get that information. And this can be very important later on.
The second part of the discovery phase that you'll see is what is called depositions. And this is where the parties for the witness will sit in a room with a court reporter sometimes on video, and it'll be a question-and-answer session between the attorney and the witness. Sometimes that witness is a party to the lawsuit. Sometimes it's not, it's very common to see a plaintiff have their deposition taken as part of the discovery process. So again, with depositions, you are seeing how these witnesses respond to questions, you're creating a record because you have a court reporter and they're testifying under oath. And you're building the record for your lawsuit so that you're not surprised if and when the case goes to trial.
So again, this is a very time-consuming process, a lot of preparation goes into taking a deposition, then you probably have to pay the attorney to sit in the room and take these depositions, and you've got to pay the court reporter. And then there's going to be a lot of analysis that occurs after that. So Depositions are part of the discovery process.
And finally, subpoenas–this is just where one party is asking for documents from someone. This is where you hear, "I'm going to subpoena bank records." You get a court order that says someone has to provide some documents. So this part of the process, if we're using my road analogy, this discovery phase, if you've ever driven through Kansas, this is Kansas, it's long and flat and boring, and it seems like it's never going to end.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
The good news is during that process, we have two other possible exits. The first one of these is what's called alternative dispute resolution. This is if you decide to go to arbitration with your case if you decide to hire a mediator, or if you find some other way other than going into court to resolve the case. Alternative Dispute Resolution is very popular because it's a way to shorten this whole time frame to get a resolution to your case without having to go through the entire discovery and trial process which can be again very time-consuming and very expensive. In Erie County, Pennsylvania, you are required to go through an arbitration process. If your dispute is under a certain amount, if your lawsuit is under a certain size, you have to go through an arbitration process where three attorneys are selected to decide your case for you. So that is a good way, at a relatively lower cost, to have the case disposed of.
In federal court, it's required that you go through some sort of ADR process, almost no matter what the case is about, or how much is in controversy. So it's a process that has gained favor in recent years because it's a way for parties to have their case heard sooner, and to save money on attorneys fees. The other exit through this process is just through a settlement, the parties may decide it's not worth pursuing things anymore. And what we didn't mention earlier is that settlement can occur anywhere along here, settlement can occur at any time, as long as the parties are discussing things, and can continue negotiating, a settlement can occur at any point here.
So that kind of blows up this off-ramp analysis, because this is just jerking the wheel and going off the highway at any moment. After the discovery phase is complete after the parties are satisfied that they have built enough of a record, they know the strengths and weaknesses, and all the information that they have about their case, the next thing that can happen is what's called a motion for summary judgment.
Motions For Summary Judgment
Motions for summary judgment are incredibly important in the lawsuit process. It is a way for a party to tell the judge even if we have a trial, our side should win. And here's all the evidence to prove it. Here are our transcripts from our depositions, and here are the answers to the interrogatory and the documents that they provided to us. Here's what our subpoenas say, here's what our expert witness testified to during his or her deposition. So you lay the whole case out in front of the judge, including all of the evidence that you've built under oath, and you ask the judge to rule in your favor.
For plaintiffs, this is the moment of truth for them. If plaintiffs can survive a motion for summary judgment, they're in a much stronger negotiating position to settle typically. On the other hand, if a defendant is successful in a motion for summary judgment, the whole case gets dismissed, and the plaintiff has nothing left. So it's a very important process. It's a very challenging process, because it requires understanding the entire record in deep detail, and making usually some pretty sophisticated legal arguments to win the case. But once the discovery phase is over, you can file your motion for summary judgment, and take your chances with a judge.
How Long Does The Discovery Phase Take?
What we didn't talk about in the discovery phase is how long all of that takes, the answer is much longer than you expect. It may take months just to get a single deposition scheduled. Because other information is required, you have to coordinate all the parties and get the court reporter in there, or it can happen sooner if the parties are all agreeable to it. But that whole process can take a long time. Then when you file a motion for summary judgment, the judge may not rule on that for a long time, the judge may sit on it or analyze it for months before they reach a decision.
So if you filed your motion for summary judgment, you're sort of floating out here in no man's land just waiting for something to happen. That's a cloud–an analogy for no man's land. But let's assume you've gotten through the discovery phase. And the case is not settled, it hasn't been dismissed, and it's going to proceed. Again, this is an incredibly low percentage of lawsuits that get filed at this point, you're gonna enter what's called the pre-trial stage.
The Pre-Trial Stage
At this point, you're probably doing some more discovery, you're probably taking some more depositions. But most importantly, you have a date or a range of dates set where you actually will have your trial, whether it's in front of a judge or a jury, and you're preparing your case, you need to let the other party know what witnesses you intend to call, you need to let the other party know your entire case, what evidence are you going to have that you're going to put in front of the court. It's as much as you see it on TV, these big surprises and courtroom "aha" moments.
They don't often happen in real life because up until this point, most likely, a series of many months has elapsed in the process. And the attorneys are very aware of the other side's arguments and strengths and weaknesses of their case. So it's very rare that you see a surprise happen at trial. The pre-trial stage can be long, can be short, and then you can get into the trial phase. And that's another exit off of our highway here.
The Jury Trial
But a trial is another way, that's sort of the last exit off of the highway. Other than settlement, we see cases that get settled on the courthouse steps where you're walking into a trial, and one of the parties or both of the parties get cold feet, and the case gets resolved. Sometimes the parties lay out their entire case. And then the jury goes out to deliberate the case and the party settlement at that point before the jury can even reach a decision. Sometimes you'll see parties set or settle after the jury has reached its decision. So settlement is always an option. And there's nothing like a deadline to hold everybody's feet to the fire to get things settled.
But the jury trial process is very much a work of art by trial attorneys. Not every attorney is a trial attorney, not every attorney wants to go to court, not every attorney is good at going to court. And depending on your case, sometimes a trial attorney expert will be brought in to assist with that piece of it. Because again, we're talking less than 1% of lawsuits go to trial. So it's somewhat rare to work with an attorney who dabbles in litigation work and who's been through a jury trial. But it's an incredible amount of preparation. It is an incredibly stressful situation, both for the parties and for the attorneys. Because there's a lot on the line at that point.
And these attorneys need to be prepared for every possibility at trial, every objection they need to make, every piece of evidence that they may need to introduce. So it's a very stressful process. And it may take several years to get to that point.
The Appeals Process
And then, of course, the last thing, and this is sort of a new highway, is the appeals process. If a judge has made a ruling in a case, whether it's on preliminary objections, a Motion for Judgment on the pleadings, a motion for summary judgment, if there's been a jury verdict, many of those things can be appealed to a higher court. And in Pennsylvania, that's usually the Superior Court.
Sometimes it's the Commonwealth Court. It's very rare to see cases appealed. It's a very small percentage.
And again, there's some level of expertise required with appeals because it's a different type of practice of law. And then there's another court above that in Pennsylvania called the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that here's an even smaller percentage of cases. And it's very rare that they decide whether to hear your case or not, they can turn down your request for the appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But that's a long, long time from now. And then, of course, you've got the federal courts in the United States Supreme Court that may hear an appeal from a state court.
So How Long Will My Lawsuit Take?
So hopefully this got you a little bit of clarity and a better understanding of everything that can happen during a lawsuit. And why when you ask an attorney, how long is this going to take? or how much is this going to cost? The answer genuinely is "we have no idea because we never know what the other party is going to do.
Especially early on in a lawsuit after the lawsuit progresses, and we learn the strengths and weaknesses and maybe we've conducted some settlement negotiations, we can get a much better idea. You may have a lawsuit that gets resolved for a $2,500 retainer and it's hourly work because you've gotten, for example, a default judgment. On the other hand, you may spend $50,000, $100,000, or $200,000 or more to get a case to a jury trial. So the range is very broad. And when an attorney tells you the fees in a huge range, they're not being disingenuous, and they're not trying to take advantage of you.
Just know that this process is incredibly complex and incredibly time-consuming. And because there's a person on the other side with the exact opposite interests of you, it's adversarial, and that can add some complexity as well. So if we can be of any service to you, if you have questions about how a lawsuit works or about any particular stage there, please feel free to reach out to us and we'd be happy to help you!