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Judge Writing


Understanding Civil Litigation in New Jersey

Civil litigation is the process of using the court system to resolve civil disputes.

It’s distinguished from criminal litigation, in which someone is on trial for a criminal offense.

Civil litigation can address a wide range of issues including:

Civil litigation generally starts with the filing of a complaint in either state or federal court. This complaint must be filed within a specified time limit under what’s known as a “statute of limitations.”

The time limit will vary from case to case. For example, the time limit to file most personal injury cases in New Jersey is two years. Cases involving the New Jersey Port Authority have a one year state of limitations.

If you’re involved in a tort dispute with the State of New Jersey or a county, city, town, or other governmental entity such as the Board of Education, you’ll need to comply with the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. This requires you to file a special notice within 90 days of the accident.

If you’re dealing with an insurance company, you will also probably need to file a claim within a specified time after an accident or the discovery of an injury or damage. Only if you are unable to reach a settlement can you file a civil lawsuit.

Most civil litigation in New Jersey involves state courts, which handle most personal injury cases, contract disputes, etc.

Federal courts handle things like:

  • Antitrust cases

  • Patent disputes

  • Copyright disputes

  • Federal trademark disputes

  • Federal Civil rights matters

  • Bankruptcy cases

  • Federal tax cases

Once a complaint has been filed, it must be served on the other party. The party brining the case is called the plaintiff, and the party being sued is called the defendant.

The defendant must respond to the complaint or be found in default.

A response to a complaint can include:

  • An answer

  • Counterclaims

  • Cross claims

Sometimes a defendant will move to have the case dismissed immediately, because of the plaintiff’s failure to state facts that are the basis for a legal claim. In other words, the defendant will admit that the facts as stated in the complaint are true, but contend that the law provides no remedy for the plaintiff under the circumstances.

Sometimes a plaintiff will move for immediate judgment in his or her favor, on the grounds that there is no dispute on the facts and the law is clear that the plaintiff should prevail.

More commonly, the facts are in dispute. If so, the parties will engage in “discovery” to uncover the relevant facts and evidence.

Discovery includes:

  • Depositions (verbal questions and answers recorded by a court reporter and/or video recorder)

  • Written interrogatories (written questions to be answered in writing)

  • Physical and mental examinations (by a doctor, therapist, or other medical professional)

  • Requests for admission (requests to admit the truth of asserted facts)

If a party fails to comply with a discovery request, the other party may bring a motion to compel. Their parties and their lawyers can spend months and even years fighting about discovery issues.

Once the discovery process is complete, either party may again bring a motion for the court to pass judgment based on the undisputed evidence.

At various points in the litigation process, the parties may also engage in negotiation or court-ordered alternative dispute resolution.

If the case cannot be resolved before trial, and if the parties cannot agree to settle, then the case will go to trial. However, only a minority of New Jersey cases go all the way to trial, and even fewer go all the way to a verdict. Some cases settle just before or during the trial – “on the courthouse steps,” as the saying goes.

If you have questions about the civil litigation process, we invite you to contact us directly.

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