Anatomy of a Civil Case


(The information below is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be, nor should it be considered legal advice. There are many fact-specific exceptions that may apply. This is only to help provide a general understanding of the process.) 

Civil cases involve disputes between private parties, or between a private party and a public agency. Civil cases are brought to right a wrong: to get compensated for an injury suffered because of the other’s neglect, to solve a contract dispute, to force the government to do what they are required to do by law (provide public records, pay for taking your land, etc), to enforce a contract or seek damages for its breach, to resolve a rent dispute, and so on. Usually civil cases are brought to recover money damages, but may also seek an order requiring the other person to do something or stop doing something.

Civil cases follow procedures set out in the civil rules. Idaho has the Idaho Rules of Civil Procedure (IRCP), Idaho Family Law Rules (IFLR), while Washington Superior Courts follow the Civil Rules (CR) and District Courts follow the Civil Rules for Courts of Limited Jurisdiction (CRLJ); these rules govern the procedures, while the Idaho Rules of Evidence (IRE) and the Washington Evidence Rules (ER) generally control questions of evidence.

The process in a civil suit generally follows this order:


A civil suit begins with the filing and serving of a complaint and summons. A complaint is filed by a “plaintiff” against a “defendant.” It is a document that gives notice to the court and the defendant what the case is about, and what relief the plaintiff is seeking. 

Because Idaho and Washington are “notice pleading” states, the complaint does not need to be very detailed, it must put the defendant “on notice” of what the complaint is about and what relief is being sought. Despite that, many complaints are very detailed and set forth detailed statements about what caused the dispute, and what relief is being sought. 

A summons is a document to notify the defendant he or she is being sued, and giving directions about “answering” the complaint. 

The complaint, along with a summons, must be served on the defendant. “Service” is most often made by having the complaint and summons personally handed to the defendant; this is called “personal service.” 


After a defendant is served with the Summons and Complaint, they have a limited time to file a written response to the complaint; this is called an “answer.” If the defendant believes he or she has a claim against the plaintiff, this is put in the “answer” as a “counterclaim.” The counterclaim is like a complaint, and is to give notice to the plaintiff why the defendant thinks he or she is entitled to recover against the plaintiff. If a counterclaim is filed, the plaintiff must answer the counterclaim. 

Failure to file an answer within the specific time, can lead to a request for the court to grant a default … or an order deciding the case in favor of the party asking for a default. 


  • DISCOVERY This is process through which each side asks the other for information about their case. These requests for information can come in a number of ways: Requests for Admission, Interrogatories, Requests for Production, and Depositions.

    • Requests for Admission
        One party asks the other to admit or deny that certain statements are true. These are used to narrow the issues of fact that will be in dispute at trial. The answering party generally has 30 days to answer; failure to do so may lead to the requests all being considered admitted as true. When a request is admitted as true, it is no longer subject to dispute and the judge or jury may be instructed to consider it resolved. If a request is denied, when it should have been admitted, the asking party may be able to be awarded attorney fees and costs for the time and effort it took to prove that true. It is important to carefully read and answer Requests for Admission, and to fully and correctly answer them.
    • Interrogatories

        Interrogatories are written questions which are to be answered under oath. In Idaho a party may ask the other party up to 40 interrogatories (including sub-parts); more may be asked by stipulation between the parties or if the court orders it. (Washington does not have a limit to the number of interrogatories posed. Federal courts have other limits.) Interrogatories must be answered within 30 days from the date they are served. Interrogatories may be asked on a broad range of topics, but must be calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. This tool can be very helpful in learning about the other side’s case and what they plan to do at trial.

    • Requests for Production
        These are requests that also must be answered under oath. They are often combined with interrogatories. Requests for production ask the other party to produce documents or things for inspection or copying; this can include photos, documents, pay stubs, tax returns, even the car which was involved in the incident. Once again, the answering party has 30 days to answer and provide the documents.
    • Depositions
        A deposition is essentially an interview or interrogation under oath. A party may “depose” (take the deposition) of anyone involved in the case: the other party or their witnesses (including expert witnesses). Depositions are most often taken in person, but may be taken by written interrogatory. When taken in person, the “deponent” (the witness or person of whom the questions will be asked) is present (if they are a party they will have their attorney there, if they are not a party to the case they may still have their own attorney if they desire). The others who attend a deposition will be the attorney or party who is taking the deposition, the other party’s attorney, the parties may be there (but are not required to attend unless their deposition is being taken), and a court reporter. The court reporter’s job is to administer the witness oath and to make a word-for-word transcript of everything that was said in the deposition. The witness (or person who is being asked the questions) has a right to read the transcript after it is typed up to verify it is correct, and then to sign it. Once a deposition is taken, either side may rely on it as they would any other testimony … and even use it at trial.

        The discovery process may take many months to complete. Often the judge will enter a scheduling order that requires each party to disclose certain things by a certain time, and give each party time for discovery, and then end discovery on a date prior to trial so that everyone may prepare for trial.

      A motion is asking the Court for a ruling on an issue. When appropriate (such as in family law cases) a motion can ask for a Temporary Order to determine how things should be (custody and visitation for example) while the pre-trial litigation goes on. It can ask that issues of law be clarified, or that evidence be determined to be inadmissible, etc.

      Motions are a very important part of a case. If properly considered and structured, they can have a very positive and beneficial influence on the outcome of the case.

      Most cases get settled prior to trial, and many get settled before a complaint is even filed. Negotiations and Mediation are two ways to resolve the dispute and save time and money. If the case is not one that can be resolved without a trial, you will want an experienced trial attorney on your side. As a case moves from negotiations to mediation to trial, costs increase dramatically; and the amount of formality increases, which also serves to decrease the control by either party.

      Negotiations are generally the least formal and, at their essence, are discussions between the two sides. The Plaintiff will most often make a “demand” (the initial offer of settlement), and that is usually met with a “counter-offer” from the defendant. The process of sending offers back and forth can be done telephonically, by email or by mail. It can be done in a couple of days or over a period of months. Because it is informal, there are few rules that govern how it is done (although both sides will generally insist that a Rule of Evidence (408) will apply which keeps any information regarding the negotiations from being used in court). Offers can be detailed or general; they can come with supporting records and letters and information or they may be reduced to a few written or spoken sentences conveying the terms that are wanted.

      Negotiations can be very beneficial, even if they are not successful. They help both sides better understand the case, and convey a sense of how each side perceives the value of the case. Sometimes the parties are far apart, and sometimes they are close; each case is different.

      Mediation is usually much more formal, though still much less formal than a trial. Mediation is often held at a mediator’s office, or in rooms at the court house, though it is not uncommon for them to occur at the office of one of the attorneys. Those in attendance at the mediation are the parties, the attorneys, and a mediator. It is usually a bad idea (and sometimes forbidden by court rule) to bring other people as “support” for the mediation.

      In preparation for mediation, each side may, but is not required to, submit a mediation statement to the mediator to help acquaint them with that side’s view of the case and to point out issues that they feel are of particular import. The mediator does not have any authority to force anyone into a settlement, they are there as an independent party (their fee is usually paid for by both parties paying ½ of the cost), and they may offer insights that they have into the case, they may disclose facts or positions the other side authorizes them to disclose, and they are armed with the power of persuasion. But it is important to understand that the decision as to whether you will agree to an offer is still in your hands, and can only be made by you (with the advice of your attorney).

      Mediators will most often conduct “shuttle mediation” where they shuttle from room to room carrying offers and information back and forth as they try to get everyone to “yes”. Sometimes the mediator or the parties will feel it is best to have a joint session to start the mediation or during certain stages of the mediation if they believe that such a joint meeting will help move the case closer to resolution.

      Mediation can be expensive, but when properly used it can be very productive and a positive experience.

      A trial has been defined as “a judicial determination of issues between parties to an action, whether they be issues of law or fact, before a court that has jurisdiction.” In practice a trial has two distinct parts: 1) determination of the law, and 2) determination of fact.

      In all cases, a judge makes the determinations of law. Many of these are often made by way of motions filed before the trial begins. Others are made as the judge must rule on issues of admissibility of evidence, and objections; and still others are made as the judge determines what jury instructions will be given (when there is a jury).

      Determinations of law are made by the “finder of fact”, a term applied to the person or persons who have the right and responsibility to decide which facts will be applied to the case. The “finder of fact” may be a judge (in what is called a “bench trial”) or by a jury (in a “jury trial”). Juries listen to the evidence produced through the trial and at the end are instructed in the law by the judge. They then take the written jury instructions, the knowledge of the facts they gathered during the trial, and any exhibits that were admitted, and go to the jury room to “deliberate.” Deliberations are when the jurors discuss the facts that they heard and determine which facts they accept as true and which they reject as doubtful; they then apply those facts to the law that the judge gave them in the jury instructions.

      In a “bench trial” the judge has the role of the jury and the duty to decide the law. Bench trials are required in some cases: small claims, family law, probate, and certain other areas of law.

      The trial ends with the “trier of fact” announcing a “verdict” or a decision as to who won and what relief will be granted.

      Most cases are not appealed; it is an expensive and time consuming effort to appeal. In the event a party loses and the party believes that MISTAKES OF LAW (not of fact) were made, then the party may appeal to an “appellate court” (both the Supreme Court and the lower “Court of Appeals” are “appellate courts”). A panel of 3 or more judges hear cases on appeal. On appeal, the appealing party must pay for any necessary transcripts (typed records of everything said at the trial or hearing) and the production of any necessary records (exhibits, pleadings, etc). The appealing party then will write a “brief” to argue why they law should have been applied differently. The “responding” party gets to respond to that brief. And then the appealing party gets one more brief to reply to that argument. The case is then set for “oral arguments” where the attorneys can argue their position to the Court and try to answer any questions the panel may have. The panel will then issue a written “opinion” explaining how they reasoned the case and who won.

Definition of Infractions:

a civil public offense, punishable only by a penalty not exceeding $300 and for which no period of incarceration may be imposed.

Definition of Misdemeanor
a crime which is greater than an infraction and less than a felony with penalties of a maximum fine of $1000, jail of up to six (6) months, or both] and felonies [hover for definition: a crime which is punishable with death or by imprisonment in the state prison. Felonies will also carry monetary penalties.

Definition of Felony
a crime which is punishable with death or by imprisonment in the state prison. Felonies will also carry monetary penalties.

Idaho defines a crime as public offense in violation of a law forbidding or commanding it, and to which is annexed, upon conviction, either of the following punishments: 1) death; 2) imprisonment; 3) fine; 4) removal from office; or 5) disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit in the state.