How Wrongdoing in a Civil Lawsuit is Investigated
Before damages can be recovered in a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant is liable for damages. The court requires that the plaintiff prove liability by a standard known as “preponderance of the evidence.” Simply put, the plaintiff must prove that the allegations against the defendant are more likely true than not true. Plaintiffs are not held to the same standard as criminal prosecutors and do not need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt but they do need to present evidence to make their case.
The Discovery Stage
The first step in proving liability, or defending oneself against allegations of wrongdoing, is to thoroughly investigate the case. The investigation is done through formal discovery procedures once the plaintiff has filed the initial complaint and the defendant has answered the complaint. Those procedures often include some or all of the following:
· Interrogatories: interrogatories are written questions provided by one party to another party. The party answering the questions is doing so under oath and the law requires that the answers be truthful. The number of interrogatories permitted is limited under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for federal cases and is typically limited under individual state rules of civil procedure for state cases.
· Depositions: depositions consist of out of court testimony that is provided under oath and recorded by a court reporter. The attorney conducting the deposition asks the person being deposed questions that almost always must be answered, even if there is an objection from another attorney. Like interrogatories, depositions must be conducted in accordance with the applicable rules of civil procedure.
· Witness Affidavits: if a witness is willing to cooperate (typically when they support the party requesting the information) an attorney can request that a witness sign an affidavit asserting that certain information is true, rather than going through the interrogatory or deposition process. The affidavit should be signed in the presence of a notary public.
· Document Production: an attorney can request that the other party produce documents that are material to the case. The applicable documents vary according to the type of case being tried. For example, in a breach of contract case one party might request a copy of the contract, contract amendments and any documents that shed light as to whether there was compliance with the contract. In a personal injury case, a party may request medical reports and property damage bills from the other side, for example.
· Police Reports or other Formal Reports: either party can request police reports or other appropriate government reports pertaining to their case.
Presenting Evidence at Trial
Collecting all of this information to investigate wrongdoing in a civil case serves several purposes. First, it gives each side a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their cases and should encourage settlement talks based on that information. Second, if a settlement cannot be reached the information obtained during discovery typically becomes the basis for the plaintiff’s case and the defendant’s defense. Therefore, it is important to use as many tools as necessary to get accurate facts about wrongdoing in a civil case.