A Civil debt lawsuit is filed in local courts when there is a dispute between people or businesses over default of payment.

Filing a lawsuit is expensive, time-consuming, and stressful. The process goes through various tedious stages and can take years to be brought to a resolution, often resulting in a return of pennies to the dollar.

At the last count, 7.2 million contract case trials were filed annually in the US with a staggering $645 billion spent on litigation relating to both consumer debt and business debt. 

The US civil court system was close to buckling before the Covid19 pandemic struck, and has now practically ground to a halt. 

What are the stages of a civil debt lawsuit?

One does not simply walk into a court registry, sue someone, and demand court action. 

There are a number of distinct steps that you must go through when filing a civil debt lawsuit, starting with engaging law firms.

Once you have hired an attorney, there are the pleadings, followed by discovery, trial, and appeal, should the defendant dispute the ruling. 

As already mentioned, the process is lengthy but can be brought to a halt through voluntary settlement at any time. 

This could involve full payment of the owed debt, partial payment or even a structured repayment plan, possibly through debt consolidation.

Pleadings – Explaining each party’s side of the legal dispute

After a civil debt lawsuit is registered, each party to the case files preliminary papers, known as pleadings. These explain each party’s side of the story relating to the legal dispute at hand. 

The complaint

The litigation process commences when the plaintiff files an official complaint, also known as a statement of claim, with the court, formally delivering notice to the defendant. 

The complaint describes what the defendant did (or did not do), which caused detriment to the plaintiff. 

This document provides the legal basis for holding the defendant responsible for that damage. 

A perfect example of this is when a defendant has defaulted on a loan payment to the plaintiff, causing them pecuniary harm. 

The answer

When the defendant receives formal notice of the claim, the first thing they should do is seek legal advice.*

The defendant is given a specific timeframe within which they can file an answer to the complaint, outlining any pertinent facts from their point of view. 

The US law system also allows the defendant to file a counterclaim against the plaintiff, contesting that they have suffered harm as a result of the plaintiff’s actions and that they should be held legally responsible for it.

Sound complicated? We haven’t even started yet. The plaintiff can then respond to the defendant’s answer or counterclaim by filing a reply. 

In some cases, one party (or both) may ask each other to clarify their position or correct any allegations or legal theories they have put forward. 

This often leads to revised complaints and answers and parties can also request the court to dismiss the suit in its entirety, or partially. 

If the defendant does respond to the statement of claim, the court will make a default judgment against the defendant without having a hearing in​​ court.

Think you are getting somewhere? Hardly. The process has not even started and by this point, you will have spent a large sum of dollars and devoted a lot of time to a lawsuit that has not even made it to the bench yet. 


resolve debt

The discovery phase of a civil lawsuit involves parties compiling information relevant to the case from each other as well as third parties. 

Legal teams will research relevant laws, review and organize documents as well as interviewing witnesses to assess the merits of the claim and the defenses. This is usually the longest part of the case and can take months to complete, normally ending not long before the trial commences. 

The most common form of discovery is when parties to the case submit formal written questions, known as interrogatories. 

They may also request copies of relevant documents and make requests for admission. This involves one party asking the other to formally admit or deny statements of fact. 

Another tool in the discovery arsenal is to carry out depositions. 

This involves witnesses being questioned under oath by the parties’ attorneys. An officially appointed court reporter records their answers. 

The contents of the depositions may be used during the trial proper, often to raise issues of witness credibility or to poke at inconsistencies in a witness account. 

If a witness is unable to take the stand during the trial, their deposition may be used instead. Request for Production of documents and interrogatory requests are also commonplace.

Expert witnesses

Claims or defenses will often require support from expert witnesses to explain technical information or to prove that an argument can hold water. 

Experts may need to testify about the defendant’s conduct, which led to the harm suffered by the plaintiff. For example, in debt collection lawsuits, this could be a bank manager, bookkeeper, or accountant. 

They can help quantify the damages being sought and expert witnesses will often work closely with the party’s legal representatives to prepare the case. 


Parties may also file motions requesting the court to rule or act on a particular point before the trial.

Motions normally refer to the case’s points of law or facts, but they can also be filed to seek clarification or resolution over procedural disputes. 

A motion for summary judgment may also be filed, asking the court to dismiss part or all of the plaintiff’s claim or the defendant’s response.

Motions can also ask the court to order parties to the case to produce specific documents as evidence or exclude evidence from the trial.

How long does a civil debt lawsuit take to be brought to trial?

You might as well be asking, “How long is a piece of string”. Even before the Covid Pandemic, US civil court justice was known to be notoriously slow. 

The duration of the whole process depends on the nature of the case, the length of the discovery period, court schedules, delaying tactics, availability of witnesses and legal representatives, and much more. 

A relatively simple civil debt lawsuit can take over two years to be decided. In a Covid19 world, we simply do not know. Lawsuits have been frozen for over a year as the country grapples with a crumbling court infrastructure. 

The civil debt lawsuit finally makes it to trial

The trial phase is when the parties to the case present their evidence in court. Before the courts hear the evidence, each party provides a brief to the judge, documenting the arguments and supporting evidence to be used at trial.

There are two types of trials. The judge will decide on a bench trial without a trial. A jury trial will involve the case being judged by a jury of peers. 

In trials by jury, there is a jury selection process called “voir dire”, where both parties’ lawyers can select or reject jury candidates after questioning them. 

If a person is being sued for debt, the plaintiff’s attorney may decide to exclude a juror who may not have been able to afford to pay a debt in the past. 

Similarly, the defendant’s attorney may wish to exclude a potential juror if, for example, they 

work as a debt collector. 

After the jury is selected, the trial commences and both parties make an opening statement to the court, in which they outline their case. 

The submission of evidence follows this. For example, in a debt default trial, the plaintiff may submit documents that show the amount owed.

On the other hand, the defendant may present documents that show the content of their bank accounts or a credit report. 

Parties will also call witnesses to the stand to question them. If the plaintiff produces financial counselors to testify, the defendant’s legal team gets the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses.

The plaintiff goes first with the submission of evidence, and the defendant then presents its case. 

Depending on the nature of the case and proceedings, the plaintiff can present additional rebuttal evidence to the court after the defendant has concluded pleading their case. 

Once submission of evidence is completed, both parties deliver their closing arguments.

In the case of a jury trial, the judge will instruct the jury on how to apply the law in relation to the evidence presented during the case. They will then retire to deliberate and consider their decision or verdict. 

In a trial by the bench, the judge will retire to their chambers before delivering formal judgment in the courtroom.

Think the process is done? Far from it. 

Post Verdict

gavel on a court bench

Either of the parties may challenge a jury’s verdict on the basis of errors of law committed by the trial court or disregarding law or evidence. 

A post-verdict motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict asks the court to disregard the jury’s verdict and reach a different conclusion.

Either party may also file a motion for a new trial, requesting the judge to disregard the jury’s verdict and order a retrial. 


If a party to the case is not satisfied with the verdict, they may appeal to a higher court to review the trial and its proceedings. 

Parties to the case present their arguments to the Court of Appeal in briefs, together with the record of evidence from the civil court trial. 

The Appeals Court is usually limited to reviewing cases in instances of possible legal errors and will not review factual evidence or overturn a jury’s decision.

If there was an error, the appellate court can reverse the verdict or order the trial court to conduct a new trial. An appeal can extend the litigation process by years

So there you have it. The entire process of suing someone over an unpaid debt. Unfortunately, the process is so long drawn out that the plaintiff may only get a return of pennies to the dollar. 

Costs and fees

Aside from legal representation fees, both parties will need to pay for court expenses. This is apart from the blood, sweat, and tears put into building a case and bringing it to a close. 

The prevailing party will normally request the court to order the other to pay the prosecution or defense costs. 

Recoverable costs rarely cover all out-of-pocket costs a party incurs during the course of a lawsuit. Some statutes and contracts also allow the prevailing party to seek reimbursement of its attorneys’ fees from the losing party.

Recover debts the Brief way

The good news is there is another way to recover debt without going to court: The Brief way.

Brief has helped businesses across the United States recover debts that were simply not worth the cost of traditional litigation or arbitration if not for online dispute resolution.

Simply register online on our online portal and submit your claim for a flat upfront fee with no hidden costs. Brief’s online arbitration platform is typically 80 percent faster than a civil court hearing.

Satisfied participants include electronic commerce sites, factors, banks, MCA, and other lenders. 

Brief also handles quiet title, warranty claims, other declaratory relief actions, and other types of monetary disputes.   

Our screened network of Ejudges spreads across all 50 states, and each case is matched to the jurisdiction and subject matter expertise of the Ejudge.

You can request a demo from our homepage or call one of our arbitration consultants today on tel: +12134443794. Alternatively, drop us an email at [email protected] to book an obligation-free consultation.

Brief is a market-leading online arbitration platform in the United States. Our 100 percent online alternative dispute resolution platform helps businesses protect their contracts and agreements through online arbitration. Follow us on LinkedIn or Facebook for updates and news about online arbitration and more.

*Brief cannot and will not give legal advice on any matters, financial or not.

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