Learn Litigation Terms and Their Definitions
Answer – A defendant’s written response to a plaintiff’s initial complaint or petition (see below). An answer normally denies some or all of the facts asserted in the complaint or provide justifications for the defendant’s behavior. In some cases, the Answer can and can turn the tables on the plaintiff by making counterclaims against the other party. Normally a defendant has 30 days in which to file an answer after being served with the plaintiff’s complaint. In some courts, an answer is called a “response.”
Brief – A document used to submit a legal contention or argument to a court. A brief typically sets out the facts of the case and a party’s legal arguments. These arguments must be supported by legal authority and precedent, such as statutes, regulations, and previous court decisions.
Complaint – The first step in a lawsuit. A Complaint is filed in court b setting out facts and legal claims of the party seeking legal remedies.. The person filing the complaint is called the plaintiff and the other party is called the Defendant. In some states and in some types of legal actions, such as divorce, complaints are called petitions and the person filing is called the petitioner. The plaintiff’s complaint must be served on the defendant, who then has the opportunity to respond by filing an answer. A complaint filing must be accompanied by a filing fee payable to the court clerk.
Court of Common Pleas – In Pennsylvania, the Court of Common Pleas is court of general jurisdiction, meaning it can hear a variety of civil and criminal cases. The Court of Common Pleas can involve cases that are hear by either judge or jury, and are where the majority of cases are held.
Default Judgment – A decision awarded to the Plaintiff when a defendant fails to contest the case or comply with required procedural steps. For instance, the defendant may fail to respond to the plaintiff’s complaint within the required time, or simply neglect to show up in court.
Defendant – The person against whom a lawsuit is filed. In some types of cases (such as divorce) a defendant may be called a respondent.
Deposition – A deposition is part of Discovery (see below) and involves taking testimony from a party or witness to a case. The testimony is taken outside the courtroom, but is recorded by the court reporter and has the same effect and rules as testimony given in court. In other words, . the witness is under oath and subject to the same penalties of perjury as if they were on the witness stand in a courtroom. The court reporter prepares a transcript of the testimony that can be used later in trial during questioning or cross examination of the witness or be read into the record if the witness is not available.
Discovery –Discovery is a process that allows each party to acquire information and question the other parties or witnesses in a lawsuit. The most common types of discovery are interrogatories, Depositions, and requests to produce documents. Parties may also ask each other to admit or deny key facts in the case. Discovery allows parties to assess the strength or weakness of an opponent’s case, in order to support settlement talks and also to be sure that the parties have as much knowledge as possible for trial. Discovery is also present in criminal cases, in which by law the prosecutor must turn over to the defense any witness statements and any evidence that might tend to exonerate the defendant.
Execution of Judgment – Execution of judgment is the process of getting a sheriff or other agent of the court to take possession of certain property of a losing party in a lawsuit, called the judgment debtor, on behalf of the winner, called the judgment creditor, to sell the property in order to use the proceeds to pay the judgment.
Hearing – Any proceeding before a judge in which evidence and argument is presented to determine some issue of fact or law. In criminal law, a “preliminary hearing” is held before a judge to determine whether the prosecutor has presented sufficient evidence to charge someone with a crime.
Interrogatories – Written questions sent by one party to another as part of Discovery. Interrogatories must be answered in writing under oath or under penalty of perjury within a specified time (such as 30 days).
Judgment – A final court ruling resolving the key questions in a lawsuit and determining the rights and obligations of the parties. For example, after a trial involving a vehicle accident, a court will issue a judgment stating which party was at fault and how much money that party must pay the other.
Litigation – The process of bringing and pursuing (litigating) a lawsuit.
Local Rules – A set of procedural rules adopted by local, state, or federal courts that instruct parties and attorneys what the court’s mandatory procedures are about things like the time allowed to file papers, format of documents, filing procedures and fees, basis for calculating alimony and child support.
Magisterial District Justice/ MDJ – MDJ are the courts of lowest jurisdiction in Pennsylvania and handle all traffic cases, minor criminal cases, civil cases involving amounts up to $12,000, and landlord/tenant cases.
Motion – A formal request that a judge enter a particular order or ruling in a lawsuit. An oral motion may be made during trial — for example, to strike the testimony of a witness or admit an exhibit. Often, motions are made in writing, accompanied by a written statement explaining the legal reasons why the court should grant the motion. The other party has an opportunity to file a written response, and then the court decides whether to grant or deny the motion. The court may hold a hearing where each party can argue its side, or may decide the issue without a hearing.
Oral Argument – Arguments spoken to a judge or appellate court by a lawyer (or parties when representing themselves) of the legal reasons why they should prevail. Oral argument at the appellate level accompanies written Briefs, which also advance the argument of each party in the legal dispute.
Order – A decision issued by a court. It can be a simple command–for example, ordering a recalcitrant witness to answer a proper question–or it can be a complicated and reasoned decision made after a hearing, directing that a party either do or refrain from some act. For example, following a hearing, the court may order that evidence gathered by the police not be introduced at trial; or a judge may issue a temporary restraining order. This term usually does not describe the final decision in a case, which most often is called a Judgment.
Plaintiff – The person, corporation, or other legal entity that initiates a lawsuit seeking damages, enforcement of a contract, or a court determination of rights. In certain states and for some types of lawsuits, the term petitioner is used instead of plaintiff.
Preliminary Objections – Points of law or fact raised at the outset of a case or lawsuit by the defense to challenge the legal sufficiency, or form, of some or all of the Complaint.
Request for Production of Documents – A type of Discovery requesting the opposing party to produce documents relating to the case. The documents requested can include financial statements, photographs, texts, emails, or any other type of record or communication.
Rule to Show Cause – An order from a judge that directs a party to come to court and convince the judge why the judge shouldn’t grant an action requested by the other side. For example, in a divorce, at the request of one parent, a judge might issue an order directing the other parent to appear in court on a particular date and time to show cause why the first parent should not be given sole physical custody of the children.
Rules of Civil Procedure – Rules that are used in handling a civil case from the time the initial Complaint is filed through pretrial Discovery, the trial, and any subsequent appeal.
Service – 1) Delivering legal papers to a Defendant or a Plaintiff in a lawsuit. 2) Delivering written notification of the sender’s intent to invoke a legal or contractual right. See: service of process, personal service, substituted service.
Statute of Limitations – The legally prescribed time limit in which a lawsuit must be filed. Statutes of limitation differ depending on the type of legal claim and on state law. For example, many states require that a personal injury lawsuit be filed within one year from the date of injury — or in some instances, from the date when it should reasonably have been discovered — but some allow two years. Similarly, claims based on a written contract must be filed in court within four years from the date the contract was broken in some states and five years in others. Statute of limitations rules apply to cases filed in all courts, including federal court.
Summary Judgment – A final decision by a judge, upon a party’s motion, that resolves a lawsuit before there is a trial. The party making the motion marshals all the evidence in its favor, compares it to the other side’s evidence, and argues that there are no “triable issues of fact.” Summary judgment is awarded if the undisputed facts and the law make it clear that it would be impossible for the opposing party to prevail if the matter were to proceed to trial.
Writ of Summons – A method of initiating a lawsuit without going into the details required in a Complaint. Often times Writs of Summons are use to protect against the Statute of Limitations expiring before the party files a Complaint.
Please contact CGA Law Firm at (717) 848-4900 or Litigation Co-Chairs Zachary Nahass and Stephen McDonald for further assistance.