New York Civil Lawsuit Process: The Basics

A civil lawsuit arises when a legal dispute occurs between two or more parties. These disputes may be between individuals, businesses, or other entities.

The following are generally the steps of how a civil lawsuit may proceed: pleadings, discovery, trial, and possibly appeal.


When a plaintiff files a complaint with the court they then serve the defendant a copy of the complaint. This complaint explicitly identifies the legal basis of the complaint. It explains what the defendant did or failed to do that caused the plaintiff harm. The plaintiff then has a time to file an answer that addresses each allegation in the complaint. A defendant may also file a counter-claim against the plaintiff. The plaintiff would then have time to draft a reply.

In New York, the lawsuit begins when the plaintiff serves the complaint and summons to the defendant.


During the pretrial, the two parties will exchange facts and information relevant to the case. This can be the longest part of a case. Each side makes written requests for copies of documents and requests for admission. The two parties may also conduct depositions. Attorneys conduct depositions, which mean they question witnesses under oath in order to learn more about the case and what arguments will be made during the trial.


There are two types of trials for civil lawsuits, a trial by jury, in which the two parties present their case before a judge and jury and a "bench trial", in which the two parties present before a judge, but no jury. At trial, each party presents evidence and witnesses to back their claim or defense.  Once both parties have presented their cases, a judge or jury deliberates and reaches a decision.

Some cases never make it to trial, instead parties chose arbitration to settle matters.


If one party is unhappy with the results of the final decision, they may appeal to a higher court. This court then looks to see if there had been a procedural legal error by the court. If they find that there was no error then the appellate court will affirm the judgment of the lower court. If they find that there was a legal error then they can reverse the judgment or order a new trial.



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