Reasonable Doubt: The road map of a lawsuit in B.C.

Read Kevin Yee’s debut as a columnist for Georgia Straight’s Reasonable Doubt and follow along as he guides you through a civil lawsuit.

I’m very excited to write the first article of Reasonable Doubt’s foray into other areas of law. My name is Kevin Yee, and I work with 15 other lawyers at a firm called Stevens Virgin in downtown Vancouver. One of those lawyers is Joseph Fearon, who will also be joining this column.

Joseph and I practice in general civil litigation. We’ve found in our experiences that many people have a misunderstanding of the process surrounding lawsuits. We hope our articles will provide you with an informative and engaging insight in the area of civil litigation.

So what is civil litigation? Civil litigation is an all-encompassing term for legal disputes between parties that typically involve money. Put another way, civil litigation is what’s not criminal law.

Civil litigation often involves an allegation of wrongful conduct (called a tort) such as negligence, trespass, assault, and defamation. Civil litigation can also involve an alleged breach of contract. Contracts can relate to employment, tenancy, business, and consumer goods, and they can be breached.

Of course, not all disputes become lawsuits. They can be resolved informally with a simple letter to the other side, whose response may be enough to settle the matter.

The formal procedure of resolving a dispute is the lawsuit (sometimes referred to as a suit, claim, or action). Let’s say, for example, that you’re shopping in the aisle of a grocery store and without warning, you slip on some spilled detergent. While falling, your head hits one of the shelves and over the next few months you have severe dizziness and headaches.

To start, as the plaintiff, you need to prepare a court document that names the defendant (the grocery store in our example), lays out the nature of the dispute, and the remedy you’re seeking. It’s called a notice of civil claim at the B.C. Supreme Court and a notice of claim at the B.C. provincial court (small claims court)—there are important differences to which court you select but I’ll save that discussion for another time. The document serves the same function whichever court you use. Lawyers don’t have any secrets to preparing these but they do have the skills and experience to build the proper foundation of a lawsuit and to avoid the serious pitfalls. In short, if you decide to try this on your own, take advantage of the resources at your courthouse library and any professional assistance you can get.

Once filed, you must serve the defendant with a copy of the court document. The defendant would then need to prepare their own document in response (again, the form would depend on the court selected). There might be other documents required but this is the basic start to the lawsuit.

From this point to the trial, both sides prepare their respective cases and share documentary evidence. In our example, you may want to learn about the grocery store spill by obtaining incident reports, video surveillance in the store, and interviewing witnesses and employees. Since your medical condition is the basis of your claim, your medical records might be reviewed. At this stage, an “examination for discovery” also occurs. The other side’s lawyer would question you, like a cross-examination at trial, on all issues of the lawsuit while you are under oath. In addition, as the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit, you may also be examined by the defence’s doctors or other experts.

Skipping ahead, trial dates depend on the backlog of courts and the availability of the plaintiff and defendant. Trials that have more evidence for the judge and/or jury to consider will be pushed further back in the schedule. Even the simplest lawsuit can require a complex trial. It may be very difficult to prove what exactly happened and show was at fault. It may be also be very difficult to assess the actual cause of the injuries. In reality, getting a trial two years from the filing of the notice of civil claim is common.

It would be up to you as the plaintiff to prove to the judge and/or jury that you were wronged by the defendant and deserve X amount for compensation. If you don’t convince the judge or jury in the first place, or if the defendant presents a more persuasive argument, then you won’t get everything, or anything, you’re asking for.

That’s the basic road map of a lawsuit. In future articles on civil litigation, we’ll discuss the considerations for starting a lawsuit and the types of compensation available in a personal injury case.

A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.