The long road to justice: Why litigation often takes years

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Posted on Tuesday, April 9th, 2024 at 4:31 pm    

Waiting years for your case to resolve can be frustrating. Many mass tort, class action, and personal injury cases are time-consuming and can last years. Especially when you’ve already been waiting to seek justice, it can be difficult to deal with the delay. 

While the circumstances of specific cases have a large impact on their timeline, the overall litigation process is a lengthy one. Factors that generally impact the duration of the case included how complicated the legal issues are, the schedule of the court overseeing the litigation, and negotiations with the defendants’ lawyers. 

From discussing your potential case over the phone to making sure we get your compensation, the legal team at Wallace Miller is always working hard to move your case forward. We are committed to keeping our clients apprised of our progress through consistent updates and communication. If you have questions about your lawsuit, reach out directly to the paralegal on your case or call our main office at 312-634-6510. 

What is civil litigation?

In a civil case, the plaintiffs allege that actions taken by the defendant harmed them financially, physically, or otherwise. The plaintiff is generally asking for a monetary award as compensation for their injuries or damages. Civil lawsuits include class actions, mass torts, personal injury lawsuits, and more. 

Civil cases can’t send the defendant to jail, and have a lower burden of proof than criminal cases. Rather than proving the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, in civil court, the plaintiff must provide a preponderance of evidence (meaning the allegation is more likely true than false) that the defendant is at fault. (Read more about plaintiff litigation and civil cases here.) 

Elements of a lawsuit

On its most basic level, a lawsuit consists of a plaintiff, who files a complaint claiming harm done by the defendant. That action launches the official court case. The plaintiff might ask for damages (monetary compensation), an injunction (for the defendant to stop or start doing something), or a declaratory judgment (a legal statement of the plaintiff’s rights). The final judgment is made by a judge or jury and may result in legal consequences. 

At any point in the litigation process, the parties can choose to resolve their dispute between themselves in a settlement. Trials are slow and expensive for everyone involved, and so judges often encourage the plaintiffs and defendants to reach a settlement. This can be faster, saves time and money, and may give both parties more control over the outcome (if the case goes to court, both sides are bound to abide by the judge’s decision). 

For these reasons, more than 90% of all legal cases end in settlement. However, it is your Constitutional right in the U.S. to request a jury trial (or waive your right to a jury and be heard by a judge). 

Stages of a litigation

Each court will have a different system of rules, which are further detailed by the judge overseeing the case. However, any given civil lawsuit will generally fall into the same overall process. 

The case timeline is partially determined by the judge. They will set the deadlines and timeframes for each stage of the litigation. Counsel on both sides will often request extensions to deadlines in order to gather more information, and it is up to the judge how much additional time is granted. 

At any point in the litigation process, the plaintiffs and defendants may choose to settle. Settlements are much more common than a case proceeding all the way to court. 

Before filing a suit

Several steps are taken by the plaintiffs and defendants before a lawsuit is filed. Both sides will gather preliminary information on the potential case and may attempt to negotiate a resolution. Plaintiffs’ attorneys may request medical records from plaintiffs’ medical providers in order to validate that they have a claim. 

This is a highly flexible phase of the litigation, as both parties gather information, and can take several months to complete. 

Filing a complaint

In an official pleading, one party (the plaintiff) files a complaint, and the other party (the defendant) files a response. The complaint from the plaintiff’s attorney will describe the damages and/or injury sustained, explain the alleged defendant responsibility, demonstrate why the specific court in which the plea is filed has jurisdiction, list the laws violated, and ask the court to resolve the issue. 

The defendant response usually takes the form of an “answer,” consisting of responses to the complaint’s assertions, or a “motion to dismiss,” which argues that the specified law wasn’t violated or the complaint has other fundamental problems (such as issues with the statute of limitations). If a motion to dismiss is granted to all claims, the case is over–although sometimes the plaintiff is permitted to file an amended complaint. 

This process typically takes a few months, but can run longer. Timelines for how long the plaintiff has to serve the complaint, and how long the defendant has to answer, will vary by state and court. If the litigation goes forward, the court will schedule a conference to establish a general timeline of discovery. 

Discovery and the pretrial process

During the discovery phase, both sides gather and exchange information and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the case. They are legally required to provide information to each other with the goal of preventing any potential surprises at the trial. 

Information gathered may include records and documents, answers to written questions, statements from relevant parties, expert examinations, and depositions. Both sides will gather witnesses and file motions with the court attempting to narrow the issues at trial or resolve the case entirely. This stage often involves settlement discussions, as both sides attempt to come to an agreement before the trial. 

The discovery stage is time-consuming. In complex cases, both sides must sift through thousands—sometimes millions—of documents, determining what information they need, what information they don’t have, and what additional questions they want to ask. Often the deadlines will be extended in order to investigate unsolved questions or locate additional resources. 

Your day in court

Should the case make it to trial–rather than going into settlement negotiations between plaintiffs and defendants–the case will be heard by a judge and, in some cases, a jury. The evidence will be presented and witnesses brought by both sides will be examined. After deliberation, the judge and/or jury will decide the case and enter the judgment. 

In a jury trial, the jury generally determines both whether the defendant is responsible and how much the defendant should pay. The plaintiffs can also opt for a “bench” trial, or a trial in which there is no jury and the judge makes all case decisions. 

After the trial

After the trial, parties will file any post-trial motions and the settlement–if any–will be distributed to plaintiffs. Depending on state and local laws, both sides may have the option to appeal the case to a higher court. 

Other elements that can delay trials

While many of the delays in the litigation timeline are part of the process, others are due to efforts by one party to slow down the lawsuit in an effort to avoid paying. One of the most egregious examples of this is defendants in mass tort cases trying to push litigation into the bankruptcy court system through the so-called “Texas Two-Step.” 

In the Texas Two-Step, a profitable company facing litigation from consumers shifts their legal liability to a subsidiary, and then declares bankruptcy on behalf of that subsidiary. Because of a loophole in U.S. bankruptcy law, this automatically pauses all lawsuits against the parent company. The claims may be shifted into bankruptcy court, which usually results in lower payouts for plaintiffs. And even if the bankruptcy petition is rejected (as recently occurred with lawsuits against 3M and Johnson & Johnson), the Two-Step can drag the process out by several years. 

Read more about the Texas Two-Step and what Wallace Miller is doing to advocate for your case here. 

Why do class actions take so long?

While class action lawsuits generally follow the standard process of civil lawsuits, they include several additional elements that can increase the length of the litigation.  

During case filing & coordination

After the initial case filing, class actions often go through the processes of consolidation and appointing leadership. This usually occurs in situations where multiple potential class action lawsuits are filed relating to the same issue or conduct.  In those situations, the cases may be grouped together in one district to be investigated more efficiently. If multiple law firms have filed class action cases on behalf of their individual clients, the court is asked to decide which of those attorneys will be appointed to lead the consolidated cases as Lead Counsel, Co-Lead Counsel, or via Leadership Committee. This process may take months to complete. 

After the cases are consolidated and leadership is decided, the plaintiffs’ leadership counsel will often file a consolidated complaint on behalf of the whole group (or “class”). The defendants typically then file a motion to dismiss the consolidated claims, which can take another six months or more to decide. 

During discovery

Discovery in class action cases encompasses not only traditional liability discovery–investigation into the alleged wrong committed by the defendants and gathering the necessary evidence to win the case–but also class discovery. Class discovery involves obtaining the necessary information to show that a class action is appropriate in this circumstance. There are a number of qualifications that must be demonstrated, including: 

  • There are enough people for a class action; 
  • The members of the class share common questions of fact; and 
  • The class interests will be protected. 

Class certification

Class action cases involve an additional, and sometimes lengthy, stage that other types of cases do not: class certification.  In order for a case to proceed as a class action—as opposed to an individual action—plaintiffs must ask the court to “certify” the class.  That process always includes the filing of a motion by the plaintiff, and sometimes also includes the submission of expert testimony on issues relating to the class and its members.  Unless class certification is done as a part of an agreed settlement, the opposing party will oppose certification and likely seek to strike the plaintiff’s experts. The court will then rule on whether the class can be certified before the litigation can move on. 

During settlement

In a single event case, like a car crash or a medical malpractice suit, the client typically receives their compensation relatively quickly. In class actions, however, the settlement process is more complicated. After the settlement negotiations have concluded, the parties will first seek preliminary approval of the settlement. If the court grants that approval, the next step is to notify the eligible class members that they can participate. Those individuals then have a set period of time (often 30 days) in which they can choose to participate (either by doing nothing or submitting a claim, depending on the settlement type), opt out, or object to the settlement. 

After the notice and claims period, the parties will move for a final approval of the settlement. Before granting final approval, the court will ensure that the settlement is in the best interests of the class and deal with any objections by class members. Only after the court issues a final approval order will the settlement administrator begin distributing money to the class participants. This process alone can take months or even years and can be further delayed if objectors seek to appeal the final approval decision. 

Why do mass torts take so long?

In mass tort cases, every plaintiff’s individual story, injuries, and medical history must be investigated. As a result, they typically take longer than single personal injury cases. 

Discovery is generally the most time-consuming component of mass tort litigation. This stage includes both general liability discovery (interviewing corporate employees, finding experts on the product in question, and so on) and case-specific discovery (investigating the details of a plaintiff’s individual injury, medical treatment, and case circumstances). 

Most mass tort cases will also have a few early bellwether trials to help both the defendants and the plaintiffs’ attorneys determine how the litigation is likely to go. If the plaintiffs win most bellwethers, the defendants will likely settle for higher amounts. If the defendants win, they will often still settle, but for a lower amount. 

The size of a mass tort can also impact its litigation timeline. For consumer products such as Roundup or talcum powder, there are potentially tens of thousands of cases, each of which will need to be investigated individually. Finally, during the settlement process, it takes time to negotiate with health insurers and resolve medical liens. 

What are the steps in a personal injury lawsuit?

Single event personal injury cases move more quickly than mass torts or class actions, typically taking between 18 months and two years. In cases like these, which include lawsuits over car accidents, medical malpractice, and workplace bias, the discovery process takes up the largest share of time. Personal injury lawyers will exchange written and oral discovery, interview witnesses and experts, and file motions before the case moves on to trial. 

Personal injury settlements often pay out more quickly as well, because compensation only needs to go out to one plaintiff (rather than hundreds or thousands as in mass torts and class actions). Issues such as plaintiff bankruptcy, dealing with the insurance company, or medical liens may delay the resolution, but the client is usually entitled to their compensation immediately after the settlement. 

Contact Wallace Miller

Whether your litigation takes months or years, the legal team at Wallace Miller has your back. We understand how difficult it can be to wait for justice on your case–and we’ll do everything we can within the system to move your lawsuit forward. From filing suit to resolution, we’ll make sure you know what’s happening every step of the way. 

Questions about your lawsuit? Reach out directly to the paralegal on your case or call our litigation specialists at 312-634-6510. 

Left to right: Nicholas P. Kelly, Edward A. Wallace, Molly Condon Wells, Mark R. Miller, Jessica Wieczorkiewicz, Timothy E. Jackson.

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