What Are The Steps To Filing A Civil Lawsuit?

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Filing a civil lawsuit in North Carolina involves multiple steps and documents that your attorney will help you with. Although instructions can be found on the North Carolina Bar’s website, having the assistance and guidance of a personal injury attorney will help you ensure everything is done correctly so you don’t lose any time. Let’s take a look at some of the steps you and your lawyer will go through as you begin the process:

What Court Should I File In?

This is one of the first steps of the process. There are three courts, which have different purposes:

  • Small Claims or Magistrate Court is the lowest level of courts, meant for settling disputes worth less than $10,000.
  • District Court is the mid-level court that rules on disputes worth up to $25,000.
  • Superior Court is the higher-level court that covers any disputes for amounts worth more than $25,000.

So How Much Is My Claim Worth?

Your personal injury lawyer will help you figure this out. You’ll need to collect all your medical and car repair bills, and make notes about how long you were in treatment for your injuries, the extent of your injuries, and if you need any further treatment or have any permanent damage. You have a right to seek compensation for the following:

  • All medical expenses billed to you (whatever you were charged after your health insurance paid their share). This includes hospital stays, labs, imaging, or other tests, surgeries, prescriptions, outpatient therapies like physical or occupational therapy, inpatient stays at rehabilitation or skilled nursing facilities, and any mobility aids you may need – crutches, a wheelchair, modifications to your home to make getting around easier, etc.
  • If you’re still in treatment, you and your lawyer should discuss your projected future expenses. You may need to ask your doctor for a written statement about when or if you’re expected to fully recover, and how much more treatment they expect you’ll need.
  • Any permanent disability or damage resulting from your injuries. Again you will probably need documentation from your physician.
  • Pain and suffering. This takes into account how long it took to recover from your injuries, and all the physical, mental, and emotional pain you went through.
  • Loss of enjoyment or the ability to do things you enjoy.
  • Loss of income for any time you were unable to work. If you are permanently disabled and unable to work, you and your lawyer can discuss the projected income you would likely have made, and you can make a claim for lost earning capacity.
  • Property damage, usually to your vehicle as the result of an accident. If any other property was damaged in the incident, you can also seek compensation for that.

It can be difficult for most people to figure out how much all these damages should add up to without the help of a skilled personal injury lawyer. For this reason, we recommend speaking with an attorney before accepting any offer the insurance company makes. In many cases, their first offer may not be enough to cover all your damages.

Filing A Complaint

After you and your lawyer come up with a figure and decide which court would be best to file in, the next step is to file a complaint with that court. Keep in mind that this is the next step of filing a lawsuit, but in reality, your attorney will probably try to work things out with the other party’s insurance company first. If you arrive at a fair settlement without going to court, this will save you time, stress, and money. Many personal injury claims are resolved out of court in this way.

But there are still situations where the other party’s insurer simply won’t budge, and it becomes necessary to file a lawsuit. When this occurs, your attorney will write the complaint for you, explaining the facts of the case, how you were injured, why you believe the other party was at fault, and how much compensation you are seeking for your damages. They will then file it with the court. Next, they will arrange for the complaint to be delivered to the defendant (the party/parties you are suing) along with a summons from the court clerk. The summons is a document letting the other party know they’re being sued.

After this step, the other party will have 30 days to respond to the complaint. This is called responsive pleading and often involves the other party filing a motion to dismiss, in which they basically ask the court to dismiss your claim entirely without any further investigation. Usually, the court rejects this motion, unless the plaintiff’s case is very weak.

The Discovery Phase

As the case proceeds toward the goal of an eventual trial, the discovery phase allows both sides to gather and exchange evidence related to the case. Your attorney may request various documents and interrogatories (written questionnaires for the other party to answer) and vice versa. The other party’s attorneys may request a deposition from you, which is an in-person interview where you will be asked questions about the accident. Your lawyer will be present and will help you prepare if this is necessary. Other parties may also be deposed, such as witnesses and others involved in the accident.


North Carolina courts are very busy with civil suits. If your lawsuit amount places you on a path to a Superior Court trial, you will be required to attempt mediation with the other party before moving on to a trial. Essentially, the court just wants all parties to make one last attempt at working things out on their own, with the help of a court-appointed, neutral third party

You may be wondering why a settlement would be any more likely at this stage than it was before the lawsuit was filed. Sometimes new evidence comes to light in the discovery phase, and one or both parties are less confident in their ability to win at trial. This can make a settlement seem like a better idea. For example, if the other party and their attorneys come to the conclusion that they are likely to lose, and possibly be faced with a large judgment, they may be more inclined to make a reasonable settlement offer. And again, a settlement at this point will save everyone time, money, and stress, so if it works out that way, mediation is a good thing.

If it doesn’t work out, you can still proceed to trial. You do not have to accept any settlement offer you receive, but you should carefully consider any offers. Your lawyer will answer your questions and help however they can, but the decision will be yours.

The Trial

Sometimes mediation doesn’t work out, and all parties will move on to a trial. Depending on the court’s schedule, it may be several weeks or months before the trial begins. Once it starts, it can several weeks, depending on the complexity of the case.

A trial begins with opening statements from both parties. Your lawyer will explain your case using arguments they’ve worked on throughout the process. They will explain how the accident happened, the injuries you suffered, the impact on your life, and why and how the other party was at fault. The other party’s attorney will then explain why their client was not at fault. After these opening arguments are made, both attorneys will have the chance to introduce evidence, call witnesses, and question these witnesses.

Will I Have To Testify?

In a civil trial, either side can subpoena a witness, compelling them to appear in court and answer questions on the matter at hand. The Fifth Amendment allows that no one has to incriminate themselves in court, so a defendant in a criminal trial can refuse to testify. But criminal prosecution is less likely to be a concern in civil trials, so unless you can make the argument that your answers could lead to you being prosecuted for a crime, you can be compelled to testify.

That being said, in many situations, testifying will be helpful to your case. You may be the only person who can tell your side of the story and explain what happened. You’re also the only person who can really describe the effects your injuries have had on your life.

Your attorney will help you get ready for your testimony in the weeks leading up to your trial, so you will feel ready. They will go over questions the other party’s lawyer is likely to ask, giving you a chance to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. This will help prevent you from being caught off guard if the opposing attorney takes a line of questioning meant to discredit you or paint you as being at fault.

The Conclusion

After all the evidence and testimony have been presented, each attorney will make a closing argument, reiterating their points and referencing information revealed during the trial. Then the jury will deliberate, and ultimately, arrive at a verdict. If you have won the case, you will eventually receive a settlement. If you have lost the case, your attorney will discuss options for appealing, if that’s something you want to do.

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured, you need an experienced legal team to help you through the process of recovering compensation. Call Tatum & Atkinson today! For personal injury cases in North Carolina, you only have three years (sometimes less) from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit. The sooner you get the process started with us, the sooner we can get you the compensation you deserve. Call us at (800) 529-0804 for a free consultation.

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