Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

Overview of Legal Process

July 10, 2022

Civil litigation involves the legal exchange between individuals as opposed to legal concerns that involve a criminal matter, which would involve the state or federal government bringing charges. Most legal suits in health care involve civil litigation. The process for filing a claim begins when an individual believes that a breach of duty has taken place and resulted in pain, suffering, or injury. At that time, the plaintiff (the complaining party) typically seeks legal representation. In some states, a prelitigation panel may meet to ascertain the validity of the suit being proposed. If this process results in a finding that litigation in this case has a legal basis, the plaintiff writes a statement called a complaint and files it in the appropriate court. The complaint names the defendant (the person alleged to be liable [legally responsible]), states the facts involved in the case, defines the legal issues the case raises, and outlines the damages (compensation that the plaintiff is seeking). The defendant is served a summons (a court order that notifies the defendant of the legal action), which constitutes the necessary legal notice, and the defendant usually hires an attorney to represent him or her in the lawsuit. The defendant is asked to provide a response to the charges. This response is either an admission of guilt or a denial of allegations listed in the complaint.

Discovery is the next step in the process. Discovery allows both sides of the case to review documents and interview witnesses. The witnesses may be the defendant being named in the suit or individuals who have facts about the case. Witnesses are required to undergo questioning by the attorneys. This process is referred to as the deposition. Witnesses are under oath. The statements made are recorded. This transcript becomes a part of the evidence.

Other tools also serve the process of discovery. The interrogatory is a written question that one party sends to the other party, to which an answer is legally required. A Request for Production of Documents and Things is a formal request by the agents filing the charges for all items that are deemed to be related to the case at hand. In a health care–related case, these items may include policies and procedures, standards of care, medical records, assignment sheets, personnel files, equipment maintenance records, birth certificates, marriage certificates, medical bills, and other documents pertinent to the issues at hand. A fourth discovery technique is the admission of facts. This tool requests the party to admit or deny certain statements to streamline the factual presentation of the case.

Once the evidence has been presented, the court renders a verdict (a decision) based on the facts of the case, the evidence and testimony presented, the credibility of the witnesses, and the laws that pertain to the issue. Either party has the right, in case of

Box 2-3 Common Legal Terminology

Abandonment of care – Wrongful termination of providing patient care

Assault – An intentional threat to cause bodily harm to another; does not have to include actual bodily contact

Battery – Unlawful touching of another person without informed consent

Competency – A legal presumption that a person who has reached the age of majority can make decisions for herself or himself unless proved otherwise (if she or he has been legally declared incompetent)

Defamation – Spoken or written statements made maliciously and intentionally that may injure the subject’s reputation

Harm – Injury to a person or the person’s property that gives rise to a basis for a legal action against the person who caused the damage

Libel – A malicious or untrue writing about another person that is brought to the attention of others

Malpractice – Failure to meet a legal duty, thus causing harm to another

Negligence – The commission (doing) of an act or the omission (not doing) of an act that a reasonably prudent person would have performed in a similar situation, thus causing harm to another person

Slander – Malicious or untrue spoken words about another person that are brought to the attention of others

Tort – A type of civil law that involves wrongs against a person or property; torts include negligence, assault, battery, defamation, fraud, false imprisonment, and invasion of privacy

disagreement with the outcome of the lawsuit, to file an appeal (request a review of the decision) asking that a higher court review the decision. The outcome of litigation is never certain.

In a criminal trial, the question is whether the defendant (the person accused of the crime) is answerable for a crime against the People (because criminal law concerns crimes against society rather than individuals). At trial, the People’s attorney and the defendant’s attorney present their cases. The judge or the jury (if a jury trial) then deliberate (consider and decide) the guilt or innocence of the defendant. If the judge or jury reaches a verdict of not guilty, the defendant is free to go. If the verdict is guilty, the judge passes a sentence (penalty) based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s past criminal record, and applicable laws. The defendant who receives a guilty verdict may appeal if there has been an error either: (1) in the process in which the conviction was obtained; or (2) by the court during the proceedings. See Box 2-3 for common legal terminology.