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What Happens at a Personal Injury Trial?

In a personal injury trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence to decide whether the defendant should be held legally responsible for the injuries and harm alleged by you as the plaintiff. A trial is the plaintiff's opportunity to argue their case and obtain a judgment against the defendant. A trial also represents the defendant's chance to refute your case. The defendant can offer their own evidence related to the dispute at hand.

A complete personal injury trial process typically consists of six main phases. These phases include:

If you file your case in federal court, each step of the trial process will be guided by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). These rules govern civil cases as opposed to criminal trials. If you file your case in state court, your case will be governed by your state's civil procedure rules. But many states have rules mirroring the federal rules.

This article discusses each stage of the personal injury trial process mentioned above in greater detail. It also addresses alternatives to trial.

Choosing a Jury

One of the first steps in any personal injury trial is the selection of a jury, except in cases tried only before a judge. Potential jurors go through a process known as voir dire. During this process, the judge and attorneys question the pool of potential jurors. They may ask general or specific questions about the case. These questions may include personal ideological predispositions or life experiences. The judge can excuse potential jurors at this stage based on their responses to questioning.

At this stage, the plaintiff and defendant may exclude a certain number of jurors. This happens through the use of peremptory challenges and challenges "for cause." A peremptory challenge excludes a juror for any reason—even gender or ethnicity in civil cases. A challenge for cause excludes a juror who has shown that they can't be truly objective in deciding the case.

Opening Statements

Once a jury is selected, the first dialogue in a personal injury trial comes in the form of two opening statements. The first statement is usually from the plaintiff's attorney. The other is from an attorney representing the defendant. No witnesses testify at this stage, and, in most cases, no physical evidence is used.

The plaintiff's opening statement is usually given first—the plaintiff must show the defendant's legal liability for the plaintiff's injuries. This is known as the burden of proof. The plaintiff's opening statement is often more detailed than the defendant's. In some cases, the defendant may wait until the conclusion of the plaintiff's main case before making an opening statement. The jury will hear each side's case.

Regardless of timing, opening statements achieve the following in a personal injury case:

  • The plaintiff presents the facts of the accident or injury and the defendant's alleged role in causing the plaintiff's damages: The plaintiff walks the jury through what the plaintiff intends to prove. This demonstration may be by way of physical evidence or witness testimony to get a civil judgment against the defendant.
  • The defendant's attorney gives the jury the defense's own interpretation of the facts: The defendant sets the stage for rebutting the plaintiff's key evidence. The defendant also presents any "affirmative" defenses to the plaintiff's allegations.

When a personal injury lawsuit involves multiple parties (i.e., where three individual plaintiffs sue one defendant or one plaintiff sues two separate defendants), attorneys representing each party may give their own distinct opening arguments.


At the heart of any personal injury trial is what is often called the case-in-chief. This is the stage at which each side presents its key evidence and arguments to the jury.

In its case-in-chief, the plaintiff sets forth their evidence. The plaintiff attempts to convince the jury that the defendant is legally responsible for the plaintiff's injuries and damages. The plaintiff may call witnesses and experts to testify to strengthen their case. The plaintiff may also introduce physical evidence. Physical evidence includes photographs, documents, police reports, and medical records.

A plaintiff's use of expert witness testimony and documentary evidence is often crucial in proving the defendant's legal responsibility for the plaintiff's damages. This is especially true in more complicated personal injury lawsuits, such as those involving car accidents, medical malpractice, and defective product claims.

Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination

Whether the plaintiff or the defendant calls a witness, the witness testimony process usually follows the same formula. That formula involves the following:

  1. The witness is called to the stand and "sworn in," taking an oath to tell the truth.
  2. The party who calls the witness to the stand questions the witness through direct examination, eliciting information through question-and-answer to strengthen the party's position in the dispute.
  3. After direct examination, the opposing party can question the witness through cross-examination. This process entails attempting to poke holes in the witness's story, attack their credibility, or otherwise discredit the witness and their testimony.
  4. After cross-examination, the side that originally called the witness has a second opportunity to question the witness through redirect examination. This process involves an attempt to remedy any damaging effects of cross-examination.

After the plaintiff concludes its case-in-chief, the defendant can present their own evidence similarly. The defendant seeks to show they aren't liable for the plaintiff's claimed harm. The defense may call its own witnesses to the stand. The defense can present any of its own independent evidence to refute or downplay the key elements of the plaintiff's legal allegations.

Rebuttal and Directed Verdict Motions

Once the defense rests its case, the plaintiff has an opportunity to respond to the defense's arguments through a process known as rebuttal. A rebuttal is a brief period during which the plaintiff may only contradict the defense's evidence. The plaintiff can't present new evidence at this time. Sometimes, the defense may be able to respond to the plaintiff's rebuttal.

Suppose the defendant believes the plaintiff has failed to present evidence to support the plaintiff's case-in-chief. In that case, the defendant can move for a directed verdict. A directed verdict asks the trial court to find that a reasonable jury couldn't return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. If the court grants the motion, the case is concluded in the defendant's favor. The plaintiff can make the same motion against the defendant's affirmative defenses if they believe the defense has failed to present evidence to support the defense asserted.

Once the plaintiff and defendant have each had an opportunity to present their case and to challenge the evidence presented by the other, both sides rest. No further evidence is presented to the jury before closing arguments are made.

Closing Arguments

Like opening statements, closing arguments offer the plaintiff and defendant a chance to summarize the case in a personal injury dispute. Each party recaps the evidence in a light favorable to their respective positions. During this stage, the parties can only rely on the evidence that was admitted during the trial. They can't rely on new evidence or arguments related to any evidence not introduced during the trial.

This is the final chance for the parties to address the jury before deliberations. In closing arguments, the plaintiff seeks to show why the evidence requires the jury to find the defendant legally responsible for the plaintiff's injuries. The defendant tries to show that the plaintiff fell short of establishing the defendant's liability for any judgment in the plaintiff's favor.

Jury Instruction

The jury's instruction is the next step toward a verdict in a personal injury case. This involves the judge giving the jury the set of legal standards to decide whether the defendant should be held liable for the plaintiff's alleged harm.

The judge decides what legal standards should apply to the defendant's case. They do so based on the personal injury claims and evidence presented during the trial. Often, this process takes place with input and argument from both the plaintiff and the defendant outside of the presence of a jury.

The judge then instructs the jury on those relevant legal principles decided upon, including findings the jury will need to make to arrive at certain conclusions. The judge also describes critical concepts, such as:

  • The preponderance of the evidence legal standard
  • Definitions of any specific injury claims the jury may consider (such as infliction of emotional distress)
  • Different types of injury damages (i.e., compensatory and punitive) based on the evidence presented at trial

Jury Deliberation and Verdict

After receiving instructions from the judge, the jurors consider the case as a group through a process called deliberation. The jury attempts to agree on whether the defendant should be held liable for the plaintiff's claimed injuries. The jury also decides the appropriate compensation for those injuries.

Deliberation is the first opportunity for the jury to discuss the case. This methodical process can last from a few hours to several weeks. Once the jury reaches a decision, the jury foreperson (who is the spokesperson on behalf of the jury) informs the judge. The judge or the judge's clerk usually announces the verdict in open court. The foreperson then confirms the accuracy of the verdict.

In a personal injury case, most states require that a 12-person jury be unanimous in finding for the plaintiff or the defendant. Yet, some states allow for verdicts based on a majority as low as nine to three. Suppose the jury fails to reach a unanimous (or sufficient majority) verdict and finds itself at a standstill (a "hung" jury). In that case, the judge may declare a mistrial. The case may be dismissed, or the trial may start over again from the jury selection stage.

If the case is approved for appeal, the case will be granted a new trial in the appellate court.

Alternatives to a Trial

A jury trial is the most high-profile phase of the civil lawsuit process. But most personal injury disputes are resolved well before trial. A legal dispute may be resolved before a lawsuit is even filed. This may happen as the result of:

Don't Go to Trial Alone: Contact a Personal Injury Lawyer

Suppose you're navigating a car accident case with an insurance company, and you're trying to determine whether the amount of compensation from your insurance claim represents a fair settlement. Or maybe you've sustained serious injuries from another type of accident and have questions about the litigation process or who's responsible for paying your medical bills as an accident victim. In either case, a personal injury attorney can offer legal advice. They might even provide a free case evaluation.

If you're going to trial, chances are you already have legal counsel at your side. But if you've made it this far on your own, consider hiring a personal injury lawyer to help guide you through your court case. Going to trial unrepresented is risky, as the process can be complex.

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