Clients in breach of contract cases, as well as other cases involving business disputes, are often new to the litigation process and have questions about it. Common questions I receive at the outset of a case from clients are: How long will the case take? What happens after the complaint is filed? When will the trial take place?
So, how long does it take for a breach of contract case to be finished? What I tell clients for cases filed in Tennessee state courts is that, if the case has to go all the way to trial, don’t expect the trial to take place any sooner than a year to a year and a half from the date the case was filed. If you have a trial date within one year of the date suit was filed in a case in Tennessee state court, you are doing well in terms of time.
For breach of contract cases filed in the federal court for Nashville and Middle Tennessee, the trial date will almost certainly, in my experience, be set on a date that is at least one year from the date the complaint was filed. In federal court in the Middle District of Tennessee, the court will automatically assign your case a trial date within, usually, a few weeks after the case was filed.
When we act as counsel in breach of contract cases or counsel in commercial litigation matters for plaintiffs, we recognize that it is almost always in our clients’ best interest to move their cases to trial as soon as possible. Regardless of how diligent we are in trying to move a case to trial, because of the extensive discovery which is allowed before trial, and because of the fact that most courts don’t seem to have enough trial dates available for the number of cases which they have, it still takes time to get a case to trial.
Although it takes more time than any client would want to have their case tried, the fact is that somewhere around ninety percent (90%) of cases filed in Tennessee state and federal courts are concluded before trial and without the necessity of a trial. That being said, don’t expect to obtain a fair settlement just by filing your case. Rarely are fair settlements achieved in breach of contract cases (or any other type cases for that matter) without the other side being convinced, by your lawyer’s actions, that you will take the case to trial if you have to do so.
What happens in the period between the time a complaint in a breach of contract case is filed and the trial date? The main thing that causes the delay between the filing of a case and the trial date is what we lawyers refer to as the “discovery process.” It is useful to think of discovery in two general categories: written discovery and depositions. Written discovery consists of interrogatories; requests for documents; and, sometimes, requests for admission. In commercial litigation cases like breach of contract cases, written discovery can take several months. After written discovery is completed, generally, the process of taking depositions begins. That process, like written discovery, can take several months. In my experience, very many, if not most breach of contract cases which are settled are settled at some point after the deposition process is concluded.
Some breach of contract cases which don’t settle still never make it to trial because the court grants a summary judgment to one of the parties. In my experience, generally speaking, a much higher percentage of breach of contract cases are resolved on summary judgment motions than are tort cases. I attribute this to a couple of things. First, where the dispute revolves around how a contract should be interpreted, which many do, Tennessee law requires that the question of interpretation be decided by the court. Since a jury cannot decide an interpretation question, such questions are ideal for being resolved by summary judgment motion (and very often are). Second, in many breach of contract cases which tend be document intensive, the documents establish facts which cannot be disputed. In many other less document intensive cases, a trial is necessary to determine who is telling the truth because no document has pinned anyone down so to speak.
This post has no application to cases filed in General Sessions (small claims) courts.