For example, the single, longest civil lawsuit in American legal history lasted an astounding 57 years! From 1834 to 1891, Myra Clarke Gaines, of New Orleans, Louisiana, appeared in court an unbelievable 70 times over the course of decades as she battled to be named the heir of her deceased father’s fortune. Even today, some cases in the United States have been known to last for years, though not to the same degree as Myra Clarke Gaines.
But why does this happen? What is it about some court cases that take so long to resolve, and what are the odds that your court case might take this long? Just how much time goes into a court case anyway?
It’s A Marathon
To begin with, just deciding to go to court with, say, a personal injury lawyer can take some time. If you’re in an accident, your state of health may be the first factor in determining whether the case can even start or not. People who are unconscious or even in comas may take some time to regain consciousness and be in a lucid, mental state where they can discuss their case with a personal injury lawyer and be cognizant enough to arrive at the decision to pursue a case.
Once you’ve decided to set the wheels in motion however, those wheels turn very slowly. Bureaucracy and “built in delays” are a part of the legal process. So once you’ve filed your desire to begin a lawsuit you will need to serve notice to the people you are taking to court. It can take months to serve that notice to the opposing party, and they have a few weeks to respond to the notice. If the defendant you are notifying accepts the notice, you can move onto the next step of actually setting up a trial date.
However, if the defendant does not accept the case, and files their own motion to dismiss the case, for example, now you’ve got a legal battle on your hands to just start the legal battle. This single move, right at the beginning of your legal fight, can derail the case for many more months.
Even if the defendant agrees to go to court to settle the case, depending on how long serving notice and response times are, five months may have already passed before you even set foot in a courtroom to for people to plead their case.
Conducting The Investigation
The other thing that can drag out the duration of a court case is one that is very necessary to any victory in a trial, and that is the discovery process. This is the portion of the case that may even delay people pleading the case, as it is the portion where opposing attorneys request and share information as the case is built.
The discovery process, is where your evidence is gathered. This is the part during a personal injury or wrongful death case where a lot of investigation needs to be conducted, and both sides will be doing this. Depending on the type of situation that transpired, everything from accident reconstruction to medical experts may be consulted at this point. If there were recordings of an incident, such as dashboard camera footage, or even videos or photographs taken by phone, those would also be examined. Even witnesses would be called up, interviewed and even asked to testify in court at this stage.
In some cases, the discovery phase may actually shorten a court case. If it’s clear, for example, that your case has a lot of strong evidence, and the defendant’s lawyer realizes this as information is shared during discovery, it may be in everyone’s best interests to quickly settle out of court. On the other hand, the discovery phase may do nothing of the sort, and people will firm up their pleas for the trial itself.
The Jury & Trial
Once pleas have been entered, a trial date will be set, which is usually months in advance, and other processes such as selecting the jury will also need to be taken care of. Once the trial date actually arrives, it may take a week—or even a few—to present all evidence and arguments. Then the jury must decide in favor of the plaintiff or against. If no consensus can be reached, or if the defendant challenges the ruling with an appeal that is approved, the trial can go on even longer!.