Civil Case Procedure
The person who begins a lawsuit is known as the plaintiff. The person against whom the suit is brought is called the defendant. A suit is commenced when the plaintiff states his or her claim in a document filed with the court called a complaint. In response to the complaint, the defendant then files a document called an answer, which states his or her defenses and other contentions. These papers are known as pleadings. The points in the pleadings upon which the parties disagree make up the issues in the lawsuit. The pleadings are not evidence. They merely state the written contentions of the parties.
In civil cases, a panel of potential jurors is asked questions by the judge and the attorneys to determine whether each panel member is qualified to serve. This questioning process is called "voir dire." A juror who is related to any of the parties or has already formed an opinion about the case will be excused and another substituted. This process is continued until there is a full panel of 24 from which a jury of 12 persons may be selected.
Opening statement and Presentation of Evidence
The attorneys for the parties will each make an opening statement of what they intend to prove. Opening statements are not evidence.
The evidence is presented after the opening statements. The plaintiff will usually present evidence to support his or her position first, and the defendant will then present his or her evidence. The plaintiff may then offer evidence to oppose any of the defendant's evidence.
Most evidence is presented by the oral testimony of witnesses who testify under oath. The attorney for the party who has called the witness proceeds with his or her questions, called direct examination. When this is finished, the attorney for the other party proceeds with his or her questions, called cross-examination. After the cross-examination has been concluded, the attorney who called the witness may then ask questions on redirect examination.
Oral testimony may have been taken prior to the trial. When a witness is not available, this previously recorded testimony, known as a deposition, may be read into evidence by the attorneys as if the witness were present and testifying.
During the course of the trial, the attorneys may object to certain testimony or evidence that the other party presents. The judge will then decide whether or not the law allows such evidence to be presented. When the judge sustains or agrees with an objection, the evidence is not permitted. When the judge overrules or disagrees with the objection, the evidence will be admitted.
In a civil case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving his case by a preponderance of the evidence. Preponderance of the evidence is defined as that superior weight of evidence, which, while not enough to wholly free the mind from a reasonable doubt, is sufficient to incline a reasonable and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than the other.
Final arguments and the Charge
After the conclusion of the evidence, the parties will summarize their case in final arguments. The final arguments are not evidence in the case.
The judge will then charge or instruct you as to the question or questions you are to decide and as to the law which applies to the evidence that has been presented. You should pay close attention to the judge's charge.
After the judge has charged the jury, you will retire to consider your verdict. The jury must decide the facts based on the evidence presented and then apply the law as charged by the judge in deciding the question or questions involved.
The verdict and its fairness is of vital importance to the parties in the case. The law requires a unanimous verdict. In reaching the verdict, jurors should enter into the discussion of the case with an open mind and should freely exchange views with each other.
This information excerpted from a pamphlet prepared by the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia with the advice of the Council of Superior Court Judges as a public service. It is not intended to be a comprehensive statement of law. Its purpose is to inform, not to advise on any specific legal problem. If you have a specific question regarding any matter contained in this pamphlet, you are encouraged to consult an attorney.