Though insurance companies may want to settle claims without going to court, some cases end up going to litigation and trial. If you are involved in a car accident lawsuit that is going to trial, you might be wondering what to expect. Who will be there? What sort of evidence might be presented? Who decides the winner? The following article provides a general overview of the trial process and attempts to answer these questions.
The Parties in a Personal Injury Trial
A "party" is someone who has a stake in a lawsuit. The plaintiff has filed a complaint and is seeking to prove their allegations. The defendant is opposing their claim. In car wreck lawsuits, the plaintiff generally has to prove that their claims are more credible; in the civil context, this is known as the "preponderance of evidence" standard. Defendants may have their own cross and counterclaims against the plaintiff as well.
In addition to the parties and their witnesses, there is a judge. In most cases, there will also be a jury. However, in some situations, it may be better for your case if it is tried before a judge without a jury, and vice versa. Talk to your attorney about which type of trial may be better for you.
Juries are selected through a random process and both attorneys have an opportunity to ask questions and exclude certain jurors who may be unfit to serve. The jury selection involves the attorneys introducing a very brief summary of the issues in the case to the potential jury pool. Juries are responsible for making findings of fact, while judges make decisions relating to the law. In a civil case and due to the lower standard of proof, the verdict often does not have to be unanimous as in a criminal trial.
When jury selection (voir dire) is completed the trial commences.
The Trial Process
The parties may ask the judge to hear pre-trial motions that will make the trial more efficient or exclude evidence that is not relevant. The plaintiff and defendant have an opportunity at the beginning of the trial to make opening statements. Either side can file a motion for the judge to render summary judgment or dismiss the case. These motions can only be granted if one party cannot legally prevail over the other, or where there are no contested facts for a jury to decide.
When trial starts, the plaintiff presents their opening statement first, laying out their theory as to why the defendant is responsible for the accident. Since the burden of proof is on the party bringing the case, the defendant may choose not to make an opening statement since they can try to simply disprove the plaintiff's story rather than attempt to tell a more convincing story. In most cases, the defense will present their side in the opening statement.
After opening arguments the plaintiff presents their evidence. Evidence may include:
- witnesses and testimony,
- police reports,
- medical records,
- medical experts,
- photographs, videos, or diagrams, or
- other evidence supporting their claims.
The plaintiff will go first in each phase of the trial since they have the burden of proof. The defense has the opportunity to contest the admission of evidence and, after the plaintiff has finished questioning a witness, can cross-examine them in order to undermine their testimony.
When all of the plaintiff's evidence has been presented the defense has an opportunity to present their own witnesses and evidence. The plaintiff has the same opportunities to object to evidence and cross-examine witnesses during this phase of the trial that the defense had while the plaintiff was making their case.
As with opening statements, the defense does not have an obligation to call witnesses or present evidence since the plaintiff has the burden of proving their case.
When the defense has finished presenting their evidence the judge the parties present their closing arguments to the jury. The plaintiff typically gives the first closing argument and also gets to speak last after the defense has presented their argument. The judge provides instructions to the jury regarding the questions at issue and the jury leaves the courtroom to deliberate.
Judge or Jury Decision
The jury will decide which party was at fault and how much the plaintiff will be awarded for medical bills, loss of wages, and pain and suffering. If the matter is heard without a jury, then it is known as a bench trial wherein the judge takes the place of the jury as the fact-finder.
When the jury has reached a verdict it delivers it to the judge. The judge rules on any remaining legal questions and renders a decision, which includes the factual and legal findings determined at trial, names the prevailing party, and describes the terms and amounts to be paid by the loser. The losing party will have a limited time to appeal the matter prior to paying the judgment.
Get a Free Case Review
Although the basic elements of a trial are nearly universal the details of an incident are infinitely varied. A legal professional can examine your case to help you better understand your situation and all of its pitfalls and possibilities. Contact a local attorney to schedule a free case evaluation to discuss your car accident lawsuit and learn more.