In Minnesota state courts, a civil (instead of criminal, family, or probate) action begins with the complaining party (“Plaintiff”) serving a Summons and Complaint upon the responding party (“Defendant”). The Plaintiff then has to file the Summons and Complaint in state court within a year of the date on which they were served upon the Defendant.

In Minnesota federal court, a civil action begins with the Plaintiff filing a Summons and Complaint in federal court and making sure that the Defendant receives a copy.

There can be more than one Plaintiff and more than one Defendant. Plaintiffs and Defendants can be people OR entities such as businesses and agencies.

A Complaint is the legal document (typically created by an attorney) that identifies what the Plaintiff believes Defendant did wrong as well as the damages the Plaintiff claims to have suffered because of what the Defendant did or did not do.

After being served with the Complaint, the Defendant is required to issue an “Answer” within a certain time frame (usually 20-30 days). In the Answer, the Defendant should identify which parts of the Complaint with which the Defendant agrees and disagrees. The Answer is usually a form response that disagrees with everything the Plaintiff claims. The Answer is supposed to also include any affirmative defenses the Defendant has and whether the Defendant blames anyone else for Plaintiff’s losses.

Even though the lawsuit is against a person or business (the “at-fault party”), their insurance company will likely take over the claim on their insured’s behalf. In Minnesota,

If Defendant does not provide an Answer to Plaintiff’s Complaint (which is rare), then the Court can enter a default a judgment against the Defendant in Plaintiff’s favor.

Once the Complaint has been filed with the Court, there is usually a scheduling conference between the attorneys and the Court. A trial date is selected as well as a number of other important dates. A trial date can be anywhere from six months away to two years away. Trial dates can be postponed for various reasons – one or more parties request it, an attorney becomes unavailable, the judge becomes double-booked, etc.

Discovery and “Rule 35” Examinations

Discovery is the formal exchange of information and documentation between the parties to a lawsuit. Discovery generally includes sharing documents and other information as well as taking depositions of the Plaintiff, the Defendant, and other important witnesses. The discovery process can take anywhere from a few months to over a year or even longer, in some cases.

Depositions are formal statements under oath. They usually involve an attorney asking an individual a lot of questions while a court reporter records everything and then types everything up into a transcript. Both parties receive copies of deposition transcripts which are typically used to prepare for trial.

If a Plaintiff has alleged an injury, then the Defendant will likely ask the Plaintiff to sign various authorizations so that they can collect the Plaintiff’s medical records and other information. Defendant is also generally allowed to have the Plaintiff examined by one or more physicians hired by the Defendant to evaluate the Plaintiff’s injuries. These examinations are also called “Rule 35” examinations because Rule 35 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure governs how such evaluations are conducted. A medical examiner hired by Defendant, most of whom do such evaluations for insurance companies on a frequent basis, usually says that the Plaintiff may have been initially injured but has long since healed from the incident, and/or that the Plaintiff’s problems have nothing to do with the incident and are instead from other causes.

You can find more information about discovery from the American Bar Association here:

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Alternative dispute resolution, or “ADR,” is also typically required for all parties to a civil lawsuit in Minnesota. This is usually a mediation (see below) but can also be a binding arbitration which is like a mini-trial decided by one or more neutral attorneys that the parties agreed upon.

Mediation typically involves the partis agreeing upon a neutral third attorney to go back and forth between the parties during a set period in an effort to get the case settled. The parties will send the mediator information ahead of time so that he/she know enough about the case. Mediations used to be in person with the parties being in separate offices/conference rooms (and the mediator going back and forth between) but now they are also conducted via videoconference or even phone.

Mediations and other ADR solutions do not usually take place until close to trial. This is because the parties want to know everything and be totally prepared before they talk settlement. But, sometimes a case is settled sooner than that; it really depends.  If a case is settled, it generally involves ALL claims and issues between the parties; nothing is left for the Court to decide, and so the lawsuit is then dismissed.

Motions to Dismiss/Motions for Summary Judgment

Sometimes a party will make a motion to dismiss a lawsuit or part of a lawsuit. This can be because of certain facts in a case, a point of law, or both. A motion to dismiss asks the Court to dismiss an entire lawsuit because it is not supported by the law (even if the facts are accurate). A motion for summary judgment asks the Court to decide the case before trial, and typically happens when everyone agrees on the important facts but disagrees on what the law says about those facts.

Motions typically start with the parties filing briefs. All of the parties are given an opportunity to be heard in writing. The Court will also usually allow for a motion hearing where the parties can “argue” their positions and the judge can ask questions if necessary. Then, the Court will issue a decision.

If the case is dismissed, then the dismissed party has to decide whether it will appeal or not. If the case is not dismissed, then the case may proceed to trial.


In most civil lawsuits, one or more of the parties can opt for a jury trial. The other option is a “bench trial,” which has the judge deciding the case (instead of a jury). Both types of trials involve the parties presenting evidence, calling witnesses, and making arguments to the decisionmaker (judge or jury). Trials can take anywhere from a few hours to several months but they usually take 1-5 days.

Once the judge or jury decide the issues on which the parties could not agree (i.e. “reaches a verdict”), judgment is entered in the winning party’s favor. Many judgments also involve the Court awarding costs in the winning party’s favor (i.e. the Court orders the losing party to pay for the winning party’s costs).

The parties sometimes make post-trial motions which can involve disagreements over trial procedure, the verdict, the awarded damages, and/or other issues. The parties can also appeal the Court’s decision (or part of the decision) to a higher court.

You can find more information about civil actions in Minnesota (including definitions) on the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s website: