Can I reach a settlement with the opposing party without going all the way through litigation?
- In many instances parties to a case would prefer to reach an agreement (settlement) rather than go all the way through the court process. Litigation is expensive, time-consuming and stressful. As a result, a great number of cases get settled out of court. Although the opposing party has no obligation to negotiate, you may wish to contact the opposing party before the court date to try to work out a settlement. The goal of negotiating a settlement is to work out an agreement that would be satisfactory to the parties and in compliance with the law.
- Under the terms of many settlements, you may be giving up your right to sue later. Therefore, before you sign anything, you should carefully evaluate if the proposed outcome of the settlement is going to satisfy you. Remember that settlements are binding on both parties, which means that once you have committed, you generally cannot back out.
- Like most compromises, settlements usually require each party to take less than they may want or claim. But the parties may conclude that the benefits of certainty and finality make settlement more attractive.
- If you do not understand something in the proposed settlement, do not sign it. You should consider all the advantages and possible disadvantages of the proposed settlement before agreeing to it.
Is alternative dispute resolution available?
Alternative dispute resolution provides an opportunity to resolve a case in a speedier and more affordable way. Usually conducted privately, mediations and arbitrations are less formal than court hearings. In mediation, a mediator (a neutral third party) will review the case and will help the parties resolve the case. It is then up to the parties whether or not to follow the recommendations of the mediator. In arbitration, an arbitrator (a neutral third party; typically, an attorney), designated by parties to a controversy, presides over a hearing at which evidence and testimony of the opposing parties is heard. Arbitration takes place out of court; it can be voluntary or mandatory. The arbitrator’s decision is usually final.
Many counties also require use of conciliators or mediators, especially in custody cases, in an effort to try to help resolve disputes before they go to court. Even when required, these steps are not a replacement for your right to go before a judge, but you should look at these as genuine opportunities to solve your dispute, without having to go to Court.
Many counties also use Masters, especially in divorce and support cases. The Master is a Court-appointed official who has some of the powers of a judge. The powers can vary from county to county, depending upon how they are defined locally. Generally, a Master holds hearings, takes testimony, and conducts court-like proceedings. Masters can usually make decisions on the case, which can then be appealed to a Judge.
As with Masters, many counties also have local Arbitration Panels, for cases involving modest amounts of financial disputes. These panels are generally made up of three lawyers appointed by the Court, who conduct hearings, just like judges and who can render decisions. Again, if a party is dissatisfied with the result, he or she can appeal to the Court.
Can my case be dismissed altogether?
- Often, cases will be dismissed by the Judge for various reasons. Dismissal can happen at various stages during the litigation process. For example, cases may be dismissed early in the litigation process because of insufficient evidence, or because the lawsuit is filed too late. The defendant can also make a formal request (motion) to a judge to dismiss the case, asserting that the plaintiff is not entitled to a legal remedy.
- Any party in a lawsuit can also file a motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment usually occurs after discovery and means dismissal of a case when the undisputed facts of the case and the applicable law leave no issue for a judge or jury to decide. A motion for summary judgment can be supported by any kind of evidence that is normally admissible at trial.
There are two criteria to be met for summary judgment to be granted. First, there must be no genuine issues of material fact (meaning that the key facts of the case must be undisputed). Second, the moving party (the party who files the motion) must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In other words, judgment in favor of the moving party must be authorized by the law, when it is applied to the facts of the case that are not in dispute.
The initial burden of showing that summary judgment is appropriate is on the moving party. The court will review the evidence presented in the light most favorable to the opposing party.
For more information on summary judgment, please see the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.
Partial summary judgment can also be granted, and some, but not all, claims can be discarded as a result.
What happens if the legal action is not resolved?
In the event the lawsuit is not resolved by motion or settlement, it will go to trial before a judge or a jury.
What happens at trial?
At trial, after the attorneys (or a plaintiff or defendant who is representing himself/herself) make opening statements (present facts of the case and explain what will be proved at the trial), the plaintiff and his/her witnesses will typically testify. The opposing party lawyer will cross-examine the witnesses. Then, the defendant will present his/her witnesses and the plaintiff attorney will cross-examine the witnesses. After that, both parties will make their final arguments (closing arguments) on behalf of their respective clients and will request a decision on the case favorable to their clients. The judge will instruct the jury about the applicable law. (In a non-jury case, the judge will make a decision.) The jury will then weigh the facts of the case and decide whether or not the plaintiff was harmed because of the defendant. The jury will also make a decision on the monetary award to the plaintiff.
Disclaimer: PMC does not provide legal advice or represent clients in court or other legal proceedings. This guide is created solely to help individuals navigate the courts. It does not serve as a substitute for legal advice and should not be interpreted as such.
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