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Covering Civil Cases – Journalist’s Guide

Civil suits allege violations of civil laws and the U.S. Constitution. This is an overview of the process and potential remedies. 

On this page:

Filing the ComplaintThe Plaintiff’s ClaimThe Defendant’s AnswerPretrial ProceedingsEnding a Case Without a TrialSummary JudgmentSettlementsCivil Trials


Civil cases also are tried in district court. They begin when a plaintiff – the party seeking relief from an alleged wrong – files a complaint. The plaintiff can be an individual, organization, business, or governmental body. Allegations involve violations of civil laws and the Constitution, not criminal laws.

Except as noted in Sealed Documents and Closed Hearings, the complaint and virtually all related filings in civil cases are available through PACER. Read more background on civil cases.

Filing the Complaint

Federal courts are authorized to hear only civil cases that involve one or more of the following:

A plaintiff must inform defendants about a complaint filed against them. This is called service of process.

Generally, a lawsuit must be filed in the jurisdiction where the defendant resides or where the claim arose. In cases based on diversity of citizenship (when the plaintiff and defendant are residents of different states), the lawsuit may be filed in the jurisdiction where the plaintiff or the defendant resides.

The Plaintiff’s Claim

The complaint states the claim that the plaintiff is making – why the plaintiff believes he or she is entitled to relief. And it states the kind of relief sought. There are three principal forms of relief that a jury or judge can provide:

Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff for an injury or loss. Special damages are a subset of compensatory damages; they represent the direct costs of the wrongdoing, such as hospital bills or wages lost during treatment. General damages are also the result of wrongdoing, but are subjective in amount, such as awards for the plaintiff’s pain and suffering, or for mental anguish. There are also cases in which the defendant committed a wrong but the plaintiff suffered almost no harm; nominal damages, such as an award of $1, might be made in such cases.

Punitive damages generally are available only if authorized by statute. They are awarded to punish the defendant and serve as a warning to others to refrain from similar conduct. Treble damages are a variation of punitive damages – triple the amount of the plaintiff’s actual losses.

Some contracts anticipate a possible breach of the agreement and stipulate how much will be awarded in the event a party reneges on the deal; awards in these cases are called liquidated damages.

The Defendant’s Answer

Under federal rules, defendants generally have 21 days to file an answer after they are served with a complaint; the U.S. government has 60 or 90 days, depending on whether it has waived service. In other types of cases, such as those involving the Social Security Act or the Freedom of Information Act, other response deadlines apply.

Although most defenses to a complaint must be stated in the answer, a defendant can move to dismiss the complaint before filing an answer. Motions to dismiss typically make one or more of these arguments:

Pretrial Proceedings

After the defendant has filed an answer or a motion to dismiss the complaint, the judge holds a pretrial conference, sometimes referred to as a case management conference. A schedule for discovery is generally set at this conference, and a trial date is sometimes also scheduled.

Often in civil cases, parties file motions disputing whether a party is entitled to receive certain kinds of information before trial. Parties also may file a motion for summary judgment, which asks the judge to determine some or all of the issues in the case based on the information the parties present in briefs. These motions are in the case file. When either party files a pretrial motion, the judge may choose to hold a hearing. However, if the judge believes the motion contains sufficient information to decide an issue, no hearing is held.

Journalists do not have a right to attend depositions. Evidence exchanged during discovery is not a part of the trial record.

Discovery may include documents, physical evidence, and other information relevant to the lawsuit. Discovery also may include statements obtained in depositions, a process in which persons involved in the dispute or with expertise relevant to the case are placed under oath and asked questions by the attorneys for both sides, much as they would be if they were on the witness stand in court. This testimony sometimes may be introduced as evidence during the trial.

Journalists do not have a right to attend depositions. They are not conducted in open court or in the presence of a judge. Evidence exchanged during discovery is not a part of the trial record.

A final pretrial hearing is held following the completion of discovery. This conference enables the judge and parties to understand exactly what issues will be important at the trial, and to work out possible solutions to problems before the trial. The judge usually requires that the parties submit a pretrial order, in which the plaintiff and defendant provide the substantive and procedural framework for their respective cases as they expect to present them in trial.

Ending a Case Without a Trial

The overwhelming majority of civil cases are resolved prior to trial – either through judicial order (for example, when the judge grants a dispositive motion filed by one of the parties) or through a settlement between the parties.

Summary Judgment

A motion for summary judgment can be filed by the plaintiff or defendant at any time after the defendant’s answer, and often is filed after discovery. Such motions ask a judge to decide all, or portions, of a case on two grounds: (1) that there are no disputes of fact that require a trial and (2) that the law clearly favors a specific decision.

The parties’ briefs typically include the motion for summary judgment, the opposing party’s response, and a reply from the party that introduced the motion. If the judge grants the motion in whole, the case is over and judgment will be entered in favor of the party who moved for summary judgment. If the judge denies summary judgment, the entire case can go to trial. If the judge grants the motion in part, only those issues that remain in dispute will be tried.


The parties also may resolve their dispute by settlement, with or without court intervention. Parties frequently discuss settling their case during the final pretrial phase, and it is not uncommon for judges to strongly encourage them to resolve the dispute before trial. Cases can be settled during trial, including during jury deliberation. 

Parties also may resolve their dispute by settlement, with or without court intervention.

The fact that a case was settled often is not a matter of public record. In many settlements, pieces of evidence, the terms of the settlement, and any monetary award may remain unavailable to the public. More information on this topic is available in Sealed Documents and Closed Hearings.

Civil Trials

In civil trials, both the plaintiff and the defendant have the constitutional right to a jury trial. Civil juries consist of no fewer than six and no more than 12 members, not including alternate jurors. All verdicts must be unanimous, unless the parties agree otherwise – an option not available in criminal cases. The plaintiff’s lawyer goes first in opening statements, followed by defense counsel, and the plaintiff’s witnesses appear first.

Once the plaintiff’s last witness has testified, the defendant may make a motion for a “directed verdict,” which is similar to a Rule 29 motion in a criminal case. This motion claims that the plaintiff has failed to prove one or more essential elements, and therefore the defendant is entitled to judgment in his or her favor as a matter of law.

As with criminal cases, lawyers for both sides may present closing arguments. In a jury trial, the judge will instruct jurors on the relevant laws to apply in their deliberations. These are parts of a trial that a journalist will want to attend.

Unlike criminal juries, which can find a defendant guilty only if the evidence is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard for civil juries is a “preponderance of the evidence” – meaning that it is more likely than not that the plaintiff’s claims have been proven to be true.