Timeline of a Consumer Debt Lawsuit: Pretrial and Trial

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To learn what happens before a lawsuit is filed on a credit card, medical debt or other personal debt, visit Timeline of a Consumer Debt Lawsuit: Before the Lawsuit is Filed.

We also have some terrific information on what happens during the trial, after the trial and how creditors use judgments to collect debts. See . . .

Timeline of a Consumer Debt Lawsuit: Pretrial and Trial

Timeline of a Consumer Debt Lawsuit: Motions and Appeals

Timeline of a Consumer Debt Lawsuit: Collecting the Judgment

WARNING !!

If you are being sued, it is extremely important that you pay attention to the deadlines set in the case. If you miss a deadline, you could lose important rights and be stuck with whatever the creditor asks of the court. Your first deadline is the day by which you have to file your answer to the lawsuit.

Filing Suit 

The suit starts when the plaintiff files a petition or a complaint with a court. The court will issue a summons, which is a paper directed to the defendant explaining that the plaintiff has filed suit and that the defendant has a right to file an answer by a certain date. Those dates vary by the type of court in which the case was filed. 

If you fail to answer the lawsuit, the court can rule in favor of the creditor right away (see Default Judgment below). If you file a response, usually no matter how simple, the court will probably not enter a default judgment against you.

In some cases, especially in Small Claims court, the judge will often treat as a response something as simple as a letter from the defendant.

In the answer, you can agree with the complaint, deny the facts contained in the complaint or do some of both. You can also set out your defenses, or the reasons why the court should not find for the plaintiff.

These defenses can include ones like:

  • the lawsuit was filed after the deadline in the statute of limitations
  • the debt was discharged in a bankruptcy case
  • the debt was paid (or the amount is incorrect)
  • the creditor is not the proper party to file suit
  • the defendant is not the proper party to bring the suit against

Default Judgment

If you fail to file an answer or another type of response in the case, the court will enter a default judgment against you. The judgment is the court’s final decision resolving the issues in the lawsuit.

Discovery

If you file an answer to the case, the court will set a date for the trial, which will usually be several months away. During those months, the parties will conduct discovery - activities designed to gather evidence from each other. Discovery can include:

  •      Requests for Admissions - a series of statements with which the party will agree or disagree, like these:

As of May 5, 2013, the balance on the account was $500.

Defendant opened an account with Plaintiff on January 23, 2013.

  •      Interrogatories - a series of questions asking for more detailed answers, like these:

Please list your name, address, phone number, email address, the last four digits of your Social Security Number.

Please list all payments you made on the account after Dec 31, 2005, and describe how you made each payment.

  •      Requests for Production - a list of documents or other things that the opposing party can review, for instance:

Copies of all checks used to make payments on the account

Copies of all correspondence sent by the defendant to the plaintiff after Dec 31, 2005

  •      Deposition - a meeting with the parties and their attorneys, recorded by the certified court reporter, at which a party provides testimony under oath based on questions posed by the parties’ attorneys, similar to testimony given by a party at trial.

Mediation

When the evidence has been gathered through the discovery process, the parties will start preparing for trial. Often the court will order that the parties attend at least one mediation session. Mediation is a formal process whereby the parties and their attorneys tell their stories to an impartial mediator.

The mediator will consider each party's story and reviews all the evidence to evaluate the strength of each side’s position. The mediator then attempts to help the parties work out settlement.

Pretrial Motions

To avoid a trial, the parties will often file a motion for summary judgment. In the MSJ, the parties set out their evidence and ask the court for a decision. If the parties agree on the what the evidence shows, the court can make a decision based on the evidence and the law. If the parties disagree on what the evidence shows, then generally the case will have to go to trial.

Another common pretrial motion is the motion in limine. In this motion, a party asks the court to limit or deny allowing the other party to introduce certain evidence at trial. For instance, the defendant may ask the court to deny the plaintiff’s evidence about the defendant’s income because it is irrelevant to whether the defendant owes the debt or not.

Trial

Trial is when the parties come together before a judge or a judge and jury to set out their evidence and air their grievances. The jury is charged with the duty of judging the evidence and decides what is true and what is false. The judge applies the law to the evidence. In most civil trials, the parties can decide ahead of time whether they want a jury. If there is no jury, the judge is also charged with deciding whether the evidence is true or false.

Judgment

The court makes a decision about the case and enters a judgment. The judgment is usually the final decision about the merit of the plaintiff’s case or the effect of the defendant’s defenses.

After the trial, the parties can ask the court to reconsider the decision or a party can appeal to another court. To learn more, see Timeline of a Consumer Debt Case - Motions and Appeals.