In California, once a summons and complaint has been filed and served on the defendants they must answer within thirty days of being served. Assuming they do, the parties usually engage in mutual discovery in which they exchange documents and testimony in support of their allegations. In California most civil cases, except unlawful detainers, will be scheduled for trial within one year of the date of filing at a court hearing known as a Case Management Conference (“CMC”).
In some instances there may be reasons for a trial date to be shortened or continued. For example if one of the parties has an illness and may not be alive in one year, the trial date could be shortened. On the other hand, if a new party is added to the case later and there is an imminent trial date, the judge may permit a continuance for the new party to properly prepare.
During the time between filing and trial the parties will usually exchange written discovery either as direct questions or requests for copies of documents. The questions can take many different forms depending upon the type of lawsuit and may be about you and your personal history, questions regarding your version of how the incident/accident occurred, legal contentions you are making, or even requests to verify the truth of written statements or the genuineness of documents. In some cases actual items may be requested for inspection, e.g., the shoes involved in a slip and fall or the defective product in a product liability case. The defense may also ask you to outline your damages in a statement (Statement of Damages) if it is a personal injury.
Sometime during or after the first set of written questions have been answered, it is typical for depositions to be scheduled.
Following the initial discovery, the direction in which the lawsuit proceeds varies depending upon the case type. Often in personal injury cases the defense will schedule an “Independent Medical Examination” (“IME”) where they hire a doctor to examine the plaintiff and write a medical report. The doctor may be a generalist or specialist depending upon your injuries. If the case involves a property one or the other side may schedule an inspection of the property.
At some point prior to trial, expert witnesses will be named by the parties and expert witness depositions may take place. An expert witness can be anyone from a doctor to an accident reconstructionist, but is somebody who has the knowledge and expertise to speak on some aspect of the subject of the lawsuit.
Once discovery, depositions and any necessary IMEs or inspections have been completed it is typical for settlement discussions to take place. If the parties can come to an agreement, the case will be settled and the lawsuit dismissed.
Otherwise, the trial will proceed as scheduled unless a continuance is granted by the court. Please note that the above is a brief outline of what may happen once a lawsuit is filed and is not meant to be a comprehensive guide on how all lawsuits work.