A deputy arrives at your home or office and announces that you have been served. You quickly realize you have been named as a defendant in a lawsuit. Now what?
Whether the suit involves a breach of contract, an automobile accident, or the one and a million other circumstances that can lead to a suit being filed, the process is essentially the same in Louisiana state courts. This blog provides a general roadmap of Louisiana’s “pre-trial” procedure, which applies in most situations. Different procedures are involved with workers’ compensation claims, administrative proceedings, medical malpractice claims, and other areas.
Petition/Answer – When a person or company believes they have been damaged by fault, breach, or neglect, Louisiana law provides that the person allegedly wronged, the plaintiff, may file a Petition for Damages. Louisiana does not have a “loser pays” system. For this reason, there is little disincentive to a plaintiff who wants to sue. Once the Petition is filed with the Clerk of Court, the Sheriff serves the defendant with a certified copy of the Petition and the “Citation.”
A defendant has fifteen days to file an Answer or to secure an extension from either the plaintiff attorney or the Judge, by filing a Motion for Extension of Time to File Responsive Pleadings. A failure to respond to a suit or obtain an extension within 15 days of service may result in a default judgment.
Trial by Judge or Jury -The parties advise if they desire a judge or jury trial in the initial filings. There is no right to a jury in cases which do not have a possible value of more than $50,000. If a plaintiff “stipulates” that case value is at or below $50,000, the defendant has no right to demand a jury trial under Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1732.
Exceptions – Defendants have the right to raise “exceptions” to the suit. Common exceptions include a claim that the suit is vague; is filed in the wrong venue (i.e., the wrong location); or is untimely, and therefore “prescribed.” Defendants can use the exception process to challenge the plaintiff’s legal ability to recover. Many exceptions are waived if they are not filed before or with the Answer.
- Written – After the Answer is filed, the discovery process typically begins. Discovery is an information-gathering process done through different methods. The parties to a lawsuit may issue written Interrogatories, Requests for Admission, and Requests for Production of Documents.
- Depositions – Depositions are a key component of discovery. A deposition allows the attorneys (or the parties themselves, if unrepresented) to ask questions of witnesses before a court reporter. The testimony is taken under oath and can be used later for certain purposes. For example, if the witness is not available to testify at trial, the deposition testimony can often be introduced in lieu of live testimony. Also, if a witness changes his testimony at trial, the deposition can be used to attack the testimony and credibility of the witness.
Case Deadlines – Typically, the court will establish a scheduling order to establish key dates such as deadlines to identify witnesses, exhibits, and any experts who may testify on behalf of the parties. The court often sets a deadline to file “dispositive” motions, such as motions for summary judgment where the plaintiff or the defendant tries to have the case determined before the trial.
Alternative Dispute Resolution – Frequently, the parties agree to attempt to mediate the case with the assistance of a mediator. This is a voluntary process. In some cases, the parties will be bound by an agreement to arbitrate which will be conducted outside of the normal court process.
There is no law or statute which sets the time frame for the “pre-trial” process. Depending upon the complexity of the suit, the pre-trial phase of a suit may take months, and often years.