Coogan Knows The Law

Episode 3: What Happens in a Civil Lawsuit?

Do you know what a Civil Law Suit involves?

Listen as Jim breaks down 5 things you need to know about civil lawsuits. The investigation, the filing of the lawsuit, discovery and the witnesses. Oh, and maybe a trial.


Welcome to Coogan knows the law, where we untangle the knots of complicated legal questions and breakdown legalese into plain English. I’m attorney Jim Coogan.


Today’s question is what happens in a civil lawsuit?


So every week, you hear something in the news about lawsuits. Whether it’s Pat Fitzgerald’s potential case against Northwestern or the players that are now already suing Northwestern over the hazing and sexual abuse scandal there. Or you read something about former President Donald Trump and various civil lawsuits that he has filed or civil lawsuits filed against him.

Or you may see a story about some sort of tragic crash that occurred, maybe a railroad crash that led to some terrible injury, and you read about the jury awarding some kind of money for that person’s losses or for that families losses. All of those things are examples of civil lawsuits. But today, we’re going to talk a little bit about what goes into a civil lawsuit.

And we’re gonna break them down into five different steps. First is the investigation. Second, the filing of the lawsuit itself. Third, something called Discovery. Fourth, we have witnesses and specifically expert witnesses. And last, we’ll talk a little bit about trials, but first.


I want to remind you that this show is brought to you by the law firm of Coogan. Gallagher, where our specialty is working on civil lawsuits, particularly injury lawsuits. So if you have questions about what you think may be a civil matter or you’re not even sure if it is a civil matter, give us a call, 312-782-7482 or find us at


So let’s begin with investigation. At any stage where somebody calls a lawyer and they’re asking questions about whether they might have a case, the lawyer generally won’t know that right away. I mean, sometimes there’s something that’s very obvious, but at a minimum, there’s some investigation you need to describe what happened. Why are you calling? Was there some kind of a crash?

Was there a surgery? Did something happen to you somewhere?

Did you fall?

And whatever happens, it’s gonna lead to a whole host of questions. The attorneys who know how to handle these cases will have lots of questions about well, wait a minute. Tell me a little bit more about what happened.

Because we need to get into some details, it may lead to all kinds of investigation into public documents. There are government investigations into all sorts of things that happened. The simplest example is. The police report from an auto crash if something like that happens. Generally the police are contacted. An officer arrives at the scene. They’ll take statements. They’ll gather witness information. They’ll look at the arrangement of the vehicles and they’ll make a description and put it in their report. It’s an important part of how those things are tracked, but it also ends up being an important part of your attorney’s ability to investigate the case. It’s one of those first pieces of investigative material, and there’s all sorts of other examples like that.

If any other government entity might have been around or sent investigators to or been involved in some kind of a thing that happened. There could be a Freedom of Information request to different agencies to go get that stuff. All those pieces of information, The Who, the what, the when. The where, the why the how.

They’re all critical. So when someone asks you: do you think you have a case or if you want to ask your lawyer, do I have a case, a thoughtful response to that requires actually finding out some of that information 1st, and that’s why an investigation is the critical first step into finding out whether anything is actually a case. To give you one other example, imagine if it’s a medical situation.

Somebody’s getting medical treatment. Something goes wrong. It’s really unclear in those situations whether that may have been the product of negligence or was just an unfortunate outcome

So the first, most critical piece of information is going to end up being those medical records. What do they show? What’s documented? What don’t they show? And a learned, experienced attorney who knows what to look for is gonna be able to help answer those questions for you and explain what it is they’re finding. So let’s turn our attention to Part 2.


The lawsuit. If you get to the point where you’ve contacted an attorney and they believe you have a case, then one of the next steps can be actually filing a lawsuit which sounds like a very big deal. It sounds kind of scary. It sounds very formal and it certainly is, like most people, would be happy to go through their lives and never actually be involved in a lawsuit. I can understand that even though I file them on a regular basis.

The reality is they are the only way to enforce your rights, because at the end of the day, if something happens to you, if you’ve been defamed, if you’ve been injured, if something else happens to you, have a civil claim, you can negotiate with the other side and maybe that insurance company will actually send you a check. It’s possible.

But they would never send you a check unless they believed in the real serious threat of being taken to court, because without that trigger there’s really no reason that they’d ever have to respect your losses. Respect what’s happened to you. They don’t have to care. It’s the fact that you have the right to get that lawyer and actually file that suit that gives you a chance to find justice.


Let’s turn to the third element here.

Once you’ve filed the lawsuit, then what happens? Well, this is actually the part of the case that lasts the longest. It’s called Discovery, a deceptively complicated concept here. So it sounds pretty natural. There should be discovery. You should be able to discover things about your case or the other side and what they think their case is about and why they think you don’t have a case.

Discovery involves the exchange of information, written answers to questions, documents like Medical Records, investigative reports, policy reports, rosters and employees, time sheets, internal investigation actions and it also involves witness testimony in civil cases.

Unlike criminal cases, the person who’s injured you don’t have a Fifth Amendment right. A criminal defendant doesn’t have to testify against themselves. That’s that important, right? That we have in the Bill of Rights. But in civil cases, everybody’s gotta talk. If you’re witness to the incident. If it’s a Doctor Who treated an injured person.

Somewhere along the way, all those people give statements. We call them depositions. But it’s sworn testimony about what happened. And it’s a very important part of the story, because now you’re getting further into that process and it’s a much more in depth part of the investigation cause now you’re getting those witnesses actually saying what their testimony is going to be and if they ever decided to change that testimony, well, we’re gonna get to that in just a minute.


But let’s turn now to #4: the witnesses and sometimes expert witness.

So as we go through that whole discovery process, we may be finding people who watched a crash happen. They were standing on a corner. We may be finding doctors who did a surgery to fix somebody’s injured leg or injured back, but there are also situations where you need an expert because let’s say there are no living witnesses to a crash. You might need to get someone who’s an engineer.

You can figure out what happened by examining the scene and measuring things and looking at the tire tracks and looking at photographs. Because there’s no witness to speak for themselves.

If you have a medical malpractice case. You can’t accomplish A malpractice case without having a Doctor who believes that what was done was negligent. Who can say? It’s their opinion based upon their training, based upon their expertise based upon their 20 years of being a doctor. That however it was done is just not the way you do it without that expert witness under the law, you can’t even have a malpractice case which is one of the reasons why those are challenging cases.

But if you do find a doctor and that doctor is credible, knowledgeable and knows what they’re talking about, and they believe it’s negligence. That’s why it’s the pursuit of justice to hire that doctor and pursue that case. And so let’s turn our attention to the last element, which is where this all comes together.


The trial. So trials in civil cases are different than criminal cases, and I would urge you to listen to our other show about civil trials. But in short, for today, let’s just explain it this way. All the things that we described, the finding of information in the investigation, the exchange of information and discovery and all those witnesses who saw something who knew something, who were the supervisor for someone or who were a Doctor Who performed some kind of procedure or an engineer who examined A defective product and figured out why something went wrong. All those witnesses for both sides, they each might have their competing experts.

One has a Doctor Who says there’s a problem. The other one says it wasn’t negligence. All those different witnesses, all those different characters, all show up at the trial. And at the trial, it’s the plaintiffs burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence, we also covered that in another episode that something more likely than not happened, that my injury from that car crash more likely than not was the result of that guy over there’s negligence. And my injuries were the result of that.

The plaintiff, puts on their witnesses. The defense has the opportunity to defend themselves. They can bring in different witnesses if they want. They can call their own expert witnesses, and then we get to the most random, challenging, and interesting part of any trial: which is the fact that all this stuff is put on in front of a jury. Jurors who are not necessarily attorneys, although they could be.

Not necessarily doctors, although they could be who don’t know any of the specific facts about that case until the day they show up for jury duty and they’re only allowed to learn things in a very specific way based upon the rules of evidence that govern what they should hear and govern what they’re not allowed to hear. And as everybody can tell by this point, it’s all overseen by the judge, the man or woman in the black robe sitting at the front of the courtroom who bangs their gavel on the table and says, Nope, that’s not allowed or: yes, that is allowed and has to respond when the parties object.

So all this stuff is put up in front of that jury. Evidence, pictures, Testimony. And then they’re charged with making a decision. They have to decide whether the plaintiff proved their case.

Or not. And when they’re finished, well, that’s what we call the verdict.


So just like in a trial, now it’s time for our closing argument. In today’s episode, we described in brief what goes on in the process of a civil lawsuit that you have investigation, that you get into discovery with documents, with witnesses, and then eventually you may have a trial. Cases can settle. It happens, but if it doesn’t happen, that’s the process. So if you’re in a position where you’re looking for an attorney because you’re wondering what’s going to happen with these things.

You’re wondering what happens with a lawsuit? I’m afraid of this. This is a scary proposition. I’m not sure if I want to file a lawsuit. I want to talk to somebody who knows what goes into that process. Well, today was just a brief snapshot. The lawyers here at Coogan Gallagher are happy to talk about these things with you because it’s what we do every single day. So if you do find yourself in that position or you know someone who needs that kind of help have them reach out to us.

The law firm is Coogan Gallagher. You can find us at and you can reach us over the phone (312) 782-7482 That’s today’s episode of Coogan knows the law, and this episode was produced by EAR4AUDIO, and you can find them on the web if you’re looking to produce a podcast of your own.

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