When someone has a civil dispute against another person or entity, the path the dispute resolution will take is not always clear. Understanding these different pathways is important to understand how the judicial system works and the realities involved with civil disputes. Civil disputes are disagreements or disputes between two or more parties where one or both parties allege a violation of existing legal rights or obligations. When one of the parties to the dispute decides to file a legal claim against the other, the civil dispute becomes a lawsuit. Civil disputes are different than criminal cases because civil disputes generally are between private parties while criminal cases are brought by the government against someone who have allegedly committed crimes.

This article will focus on four ways a civil dispute can end: trial, dismissal, settlement, and alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”). Trials and dismissals are decided by a judge and occasionally a jury while settlements and ADR are conducted by the parties to the lawsuit.


When a lawsuit is filed by someone involved in a civil dispute, the dispute becomes civil litigation. Litigation brings the dispute to the court system in order to resolve it. The person or entity filing the lawsuit is called the plaintiff, and the person or entity sued is called the defendant. A trial is a resolution that most people picture when it comes to litigation. In reality, a very small percentage of cases, under 1%, actually make it to a trial. When it comes to a trial, the outcome can be decided by either a judge or jury. When the decision-maker is a judge, it is a bench trial. When the decision-maker is a jury, it is a jury trial. The main difference between the two types of trials is who the makes the final decisions.

Most people associate trials with jury trials because that is how trials are typically portrayed on television or in movies. However, when it comes to civil matters, trials most often occur in the form of a bench trial and are ultimately decided by a judge. In order to have a jury, one of the parties to the case must request a jury trial. In both types of trials, each party gets to present their evidence in the form of witness testimony, photographs, and documents. After hearing all the evidence, the judge or jury decides what facts they find most persuasive. Based on this evidence, they decide which party wins the case and if they are entitled to the type of relief they are requesting. Relief may include stopping or preventing someone from doing something or financial compensation.

When a case makes it to a trial, many rules must be followed. At the federal level, the Federal Rules of Evidence govern what evidence can be used. States also have their own rules of evidence, which can be similar to the federal rules, and these rules govern what evidence can be used for trails heard at the state court level. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure also impose rules on how trials are carried out. In addition, each court has local rules that govern everything from dress codes for the attorneys to the specific rules for civil proceedings at that court. The cases that make it to trial are rare, and the number has been in a steady decline for years.


During the civil litigation process, the cases can be dismissed at almost any stage for various reasons. Federal and state courts can have different rules on when the parties can make a motion or file for dismissal. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow voluntary dismissals of cases by the plaintiff or the court. The plaintiff can voluntarily dismiss the case without permission from the court or the defendants if the plaintiff does so before the defendant responds to the plaintiff’s initial complaint. Plaintiffs can also voluntarily dismiss a case through an agreement with the defendant. Plaintiffs might want to voluntarily dismiss their case for various reasons. For example, the parties reached an agreement through ADR, the plaintiff decided they did not want to proceed, or the plaintiff might want to bring the lawsuit in a different state or court. Because the plaintiff is the party who originally filed the lawsuit, a case may not be voluntarily dismissed without the plaintiff’s consent. Courts also have the discretion to allow cases to be dismissed voluntarily when requested by the plaintiff after the defendant responds. The court can set the terms for the dismissal as it deems fit. Voluntary dismissals are considered without prejudice unless a court order states otherwise. Essentially, “without prejudice” means the plaintiff can file the lawsuit against the same defendant again.

The federal rules also allow for involuntary dismissal of cases. An involuntary dismissal could happen if the plaintiff did not follow the court’s rules or court order. For example, cases can be involuntarily dismissed if a plaintiff fails to provide documents to the court before trial or fails to provide the defendant with a list of the witnesses that the plaintiff wants to have at the trial.  Other potential causes for involuntary dismissal include failure to show up to scheduled pretrial conference or failure to show up to the trial. Most cases that are involuntarily dismissed are considered “judged on the merits.” This means that the plaintiff could not bring the same suit against the defendant because it has already been decided.

Federal rules also allow cases to be dismissed if certain requirements are not met. However, in order to get a federal court to dismiss a case for failing to meet necessary requirement, one party to the lawsuit must make a motion for dismissal. A few of these requirements include subject-matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, venue, service of process, and stating a claim for which relief can be granted.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Many courts often require ADR as a way to get the parties to try and resolve the dispute before it goes to trial. The main ADR methods are negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. Negotiation is a discussion just between the parties which means they have full control of the final solution if one is found. Mediation involves an impartial and neutral third-party mediator who facilitates negotiation between the parties. Mediators work with the parties to help them reach a solution that they all can agree on. With both negotiation and mediation, if the parties cannot reach an agreement, then the dispute can proceed to a trial.

Arbitration is the most formal category of ADR and it creates a legally binding decision on the dispute. Arbitration involves one or more impartial arbitrators that are chosen by the parties. Arbitration is a formal process because it is governed by specific rules, such as the Federal Arbitration Act and state arbitration laws. Additionally, there are private arbitration businesses that create their own arbitration rules. Many contracts that people enter into involve an arbitration clause that requires the parties to use arbitration if a dispute arises. These arbitration clauses limit the parties’ option to a trial. Arbitration decisions are legally binding and enforceable. These decisions are then confirmed by the appropriate court and considered a judgment. In some situations, however, the decision of the arbitrator may be appealed to the appropriate court. Arbitration decisions are only appealable under very limited circumstances such as corruption, misconduct, or disregard for the law.


When parties reach an agreement to resolve their dispute, it is referred to as a settlement. Settlements can be reached anytime. For example, a settlement can occur before a lawsuit is filed in the court system, during the ADR process, or anytime during litigation. Settlements are private agreements between the parties and are considered contracts. When a settlement is reached, parties typically do not admit who was right or wrong. Instead, the goal is to reach a mutual decision, and the specifics of the settlement agreement are entirely up to the parties. Settlement agreements can include an agreement to pay, an agreement to stop or start doing something, or any combination of the two. Because settlements are handled outside the court system, the agreements can contain whatever lawful provisions the parties can agree upon.


There are many routes that a dispute can take, and it is not always clear how a dispute will be handled from the start. A lot depends on the parties and the best interests of those involved. Regardless, it is important to keep in mind that while millions of cases are filed each year, only a small percentage reach a trial, with the majority either being resolved with a settlement or dismissed.


For more resources on ADR from the National Agricultural Law Center, click here.

For more articles in the Procedures series, click here.