How does a civil lawsuit work?

February 26, 2019 | Chris Costello, Esq.

 Being sued and just the thought of lawsuits has the tendency to make everyone’s blood run cold. Yes, it is a very scary occurance but when you are informed of the process it can make the unknown just a little less scary. I am going to briefly describe the various aspects of a civil lawsuit, do not take this as legal advice as it is simply for informative purposes. If you are being sued or are wanting to sue someone you should ALWAYS consult legal counsel before taking any action. Legal counsel can help you determine if there is a lawful cause of action and prevent you from falsely accusing someone and risking you being sued over frivolously matters.

How does a civil trial work in New Jersey?


For a legal action to begin the wronged party (hereinafter referred to as the Plaintiff) must file a legal document known as a “Complaint.” The complaint will state their cause of action and request for relief. Some of the key elements a complaint must include to be valid are as follows:

  1. Parties Names
  2. Description of the occurrence
  3. Dates and times of the occurrence
  4. Grounds for making the claim with applicable New Jersey Statue reference
  5. A prayer for relief (what the plaintiff wants in return for the wrong doing)
  6. Signature of attorney or Plaintiff, if filing pro se

After filing the complaint, the plaintiff must have the complaint properly served on the Defendant.


A summons is a written notice that puts the court and defendant on notice that a legal action as begun and is being filed. The Summons is used to call the defendant to action and must accompany a Complaint when being served. In New Jersey, a Summons must be issued within 10 days of the complaint being filed by an attorney or clerk of court.

Serving a Complaint & Summons

The complaint must be properly served in order for the time for the Defendant to respond to being ticking.

In order for the time to begin for the Defendant to respond the Plaintiff must properly perfect service pursuant to Rule 4:4. Perfecting service is essential to the lawsuit beginning and legal counsel should be consulted to determine the process. The best way to have something properly served is by using the Sheriff to deliver it personally to the Defendant.


Once the Defendant has been properly served they have 35 days in New Jersey state court from the date of service to file an Answer. In the Answer, they can confirm or deny the allegations made in the complaint. In their response, they also have the opportunity to make any counterclaims to counter sue the plaintiff.


After the complaint has been served and an answer has been filed the parties will then begin the process of discovery. The discovery phase can last from 150 to 450 days and sometimes can last longer if extensions are filed.

Discovery consists of each party sending Interrogatories (questions) and requests for production of documents to each side. The purpose of discovery is to learn more about the event and alleged damages. Prior to responding to discovery requests is very important to keep in mind what information will be privileged and should not or is not required to be disclosed.  Some examples of privileged information include “physician/patient privilege,” “work product privilege” and “attorney-client privilege.” An attorney can help you determine which privileges properly apply to the interrogatories or requests being served.


During the discovery phase of the civil lawsuit, either party can request the deposition (or interrogation) of witnesses or a party. During the deposition, a court reporter must be present, and they are often video recorded. These interrogations or interviews are under oath and are admissible in court during a trial. The individual being deposed should be properly prepared prior to entering a deposition as they can be very nerve-wracking and intimidating. Proper preparation will help to calm nerves and prevent mistakes. It is not uncommon for the deposing attorney to try and confuse a witness during a deposition. The individual deposed should have legal representation present to make objections if necessary.


Prior to a case being tried before a jury the court requires a mediation or alternative dispute resolution to be held with a certified mediator. In a mediation both parties come together and try and reach a settlement. Following the mediation, the mediator will file a report with the court letting them know if the case was settled or not. If not, the case proceeds to trial.

Motions for Summary Judgement

Following the mediation, either party can move for a judge to move forward and make ruling on the case. If a summary judgement is granted the case will be resolved and it will not move forward to trial. The receiving party of the motion will have the opportunity to file responses as well as fight the motion in Court prior to the judge making their ruling.


If the case does not settle at mediation and is not ruled on during a summary judgement hearing it will then be placed on trial calendar. The time it takes for a civil trial to be heard depends on the cadence of the counties trials and what is pending to be heard.

Once calendared and a trial date is set the parties will notice of the date, so they can begin their trial preparation. Trials can last a few hours or several days and are very involved. If a jury was requested the case will be heard by a judge and six jurors (in New Jersey). Civil cases in New Jersey are typically heard by six jurors but sometimes can be heard by twelve. The Plaintiff will first present their case and witnesses followed by the Defendant. Each party will have the opportunity to do cross-examination of each other’s witnesses. It is very important witnesses be properly prepared as being on a witness stand can be very intimating and a case can be easily lost with a weak witness.

Once all evidence has been presented and the witnesses have been examined by both sites the parties will present their closing arguments. Following the closing arguments, the judge will charge (or instruct) the jury on what they can and cannot consider during their deliberations.

Once the jury is charged they will begin their deliberations. This like the trial hearing, can be a quick process or a long one, it really depends on the arguments the jurors raise. Following the deliberations, the jury foreman (a “captain” of sorts elected by the other jurors) will provide the judge with their verdict. The judge will then read the verdict to the parties. The verdict will included if any damages are awarded, provided it is a claim where monetary damages are being sought. 


Following the reading of the verdict the parties will typically have 45 day to file an appeal. The appeals processes is VERY complex and should not be attempted pro se. It is highly recommended legal counsel be consulted before deciding to appeal a verdict and proceeding with an appeal.

Don’t go into court alone, give Costello Law Firm a call!

If you’re still wondering, “How a lawsuit in New Jersey works?” contact Costello Law Firm today. Costello Law Firm is happy to consult with you to answer your legal questions around civil lawsuits. Don’t risk getting a judgement against you or having your case dismissed, gather your documents and consult legal counsel before heading to court.

Chris Costello, ESQ.

Chris Costello, ESQ.

Chris handles matters in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania and is an active member of the New Jersey Association for Justice as well as the Burlington County Bar Association. As a Burlington County personal injury lawyer, Mr. Costello has served as chairman of the Burlington County Bar Association Personal Injury Committee and lectured on topics related to auto accidents and insurance law.

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