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Civil Cases - The Basics

This article provides a comprehensive overview of the civil trials in the United States. It details the process of what happens in a civil case, starting from the initiation to the verdict. It also talks about the phases of the civil trial such as jury selection, the attorney's opening statement, witness testimony, and more.

Introduction to Civil Trials

A civil action often begins with the filing of the pleadings. The initial pleading is often a complaint filed by the Plaintiff. The complaint contains the legal facts of the case and the issues that give rise to the Plaintiff's legal claims. This begins the civil trial between the parties.

In a civil trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence presented by both parties. The court looks into whether by a preponderance of the evidence, the defendant should be held responsible for the damages alleged by the plaintiff.

A trial is the plaintiff's opportunity to argue their case to obtain a judgment against the defendant. It also represents the defendant's chance to refute the plaintiff's case and offer evidence related to the civil case.

After both sides present their arguments, the judge or jury considers whether to find the defendant liable. If the defendant is liable, the court will figure out to what extent. This may be money damages the defendant must pay, or some other form of remedy.

Depending on the type of case, a civil trial might not focus on the plaintiff's allegations and the defendant's liability. In most divorce cases, a trial judge decides after hearing claims from both sides of the dispute. The judge enters a judgment that may favor one spouse on one issue (child custody) and the other spouse on another issue (alimony).

Pre-Trial Resolutions

Some civil actions are resolved before it reaches the jury trial stage. This often happens through settlements or Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes like arbitration, negotiation, mediation, and conciliation, avoid the complexities of the federal court and state court rules.

The purpose of the ADR is to assist parties in arriving at a mutual solution to their civil case. Compared to civil litigation, ADR is less formal and, in most cases, is a cost-effective means of settling a case.

Stages of Civil Trial

A complete civil trial typically consists of six main phases, each of which is described in more detail below:

Choosing a Jury

In civil trials, one of the first steps is jury selection. This is unlike in cases tried only before a judge. The jury selection process is known as voir dire

During jury selection, the judge, the parties, and their respective attorneys will question a pool of potential jurors. The questions deal with matters about the particular case. This may include the potential jury's personal predispositions or life experiences that relate to the case.

The judge can assess potential jurors at this stage based on their responses to questioning. The parties can also exclude a certain number of jurors through the use of peremptory challenges and challenges for cause. 

The party to a civil case can use a peremptory challenge to exclude a juror for any reason, including gender and ethnicity. Parties may use challenge for cause to exclude a juror who has shown that they can't be objective in deciding the case.

Opening Statements

After completing voir dire, the civil trial begins with the first dialogue through opening statements. One comes from the plaintiff's attorney, while the other is from the counsel for the defendant. No witnesses testify at this stage, and no physical evidence is shown.

The plaintiff's opening statement often goes first because the plaintiff has the burden of proof to show the defendant's liability. It is often more detailed than that of the defendant. In some cases, the defendant may wait until the conclusion of the plaintiff's main case before making its opening statement.

Regardless of when either side in a civil trial makes opening statements, during those statements:

  • The plaintiff presents the facts of the case and the defendant's alleged role in causing the plaintiff's damages or injury. It will walk the jury through what the plaintiff intends to prove to get a civil judgment against the defendant.
  • The defendant's attorney gives the jury the defense's interpretation of the facts. They will set the stage for rebutting the plaintiff's key evidence. The defendant also presents any affirmative defenses to the plaintiff's allegations.

When a civil lawsuit involves multiple parties, attorneys representing each party may give their distinct opening statements. This can occur when three individual plaintiffs sue one defendant, or one plaintiff sues two separate defendants. This process varies depending on the court's rule and the complexity of the case.

Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination

At the heart of any civil trial is the case-in-chief. It's the stage at which each side presents evidence and arguments to the jury.

In its case-in-chief, the plaintiff sets forth its evidence to convince the jury that the defendant is responsible for the plaintiff's damages or that judgment for the plaintiff is justifiable under the circumstances. At this point, the plaintiff may call witnesses and experts to testify to strengthen their case.

The plaintiff may also introduce physical evidence such as photographs, documents, and medical reports. A plaintiff's use of expert testimony and documentary evidence is also crucial in proving the defendant's liability. This is helpful in more complicated civil lawsuits such as employment discrimination and defective product claims.

The witness testimony process adheres to the following formula. This applies whether the plaintiff or the defendant calls a witness:

  • The witness is called to the stand and is sworn in, taking an oath to tell the truth.
  • The party who called the witness to the stand questions the witness through direct examination. They elicit information through question-and-answer to strengthen the party's position in the dispute.
  • After direct examination, the opposing party can question the witness through cross-examination. This is an attempt to poke holes in the witness's story, attack their credibility, or otherwise discredit the witness and their testimony.
  • After cross-examination, the side that called the witness has a second chance to question them, through re-direct examination. This is an attempt to remedy any damaging effects of cross-examination.

Once the plaintiff concludes its case-in-chief and rests, the defendant can present its evidence in the same manner. The defendant aims to show that it is not liable for the plaintiff's claimed harm. 

The defense may call witnesses to the stand. They can present any independent evidence to refute or downplay the key elements of the plaintiff's legal allegations.

Once the defense concludes, the plaintiff can respond to the defense's arguments through a process known as rebuttal. This is a brief period during which the plaintiff may only contradict the defense's evidence. The plaintiff cannot present new arguments. Sometimes, the defense may, in turn, have a chance to respond to the prosecution's rebuttal.

Both sides rest once each party has the opportunity to present their case and challenge the evidence presented by the other. This means that they can't present more evidence to the jury before they make closing arguments.

Closing Arguments

Like the opening statement, the closing argument offers the plaintiff and the defendant in a civil dispute a chance to sum up the case. The closing argument recaps the evidence in a light favorable to their respective positions.

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 damages. They need to show that the plaintiff's case is stronger than the defendant's. 

In turn, the defendant tries to show that the plaintiff has fallen short of establishing the defendant's liability.

Jury Instruction

After both sides of the case have had a chance to present their evidence and make a closing argument, jury instruction is the next step toward a verdict. This is the process in which the judge gives the jury a set of legal standards. The jury instructions help decide whether the defendant should be accountable for the plaintiff's alleged harm.

The judge decides what legal standards should apply to the defendant's case. This decision is based on the civil claims and evidence presented during the trial. This process often takes place with input and argument from the plaintiff and the defendant.

The judge then instructs the jury on those relevant legal principles decided upon. This includes 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
  • Defines any specific claims the jury may consider
  • Discusses different types of damages (i.e., compensatory and punitive)

These are all based on the evidence presented at trial. The case then goes to the jury.

Jury Deliberation and Verdict

After receiving jury instruction from the judge, the jurors consider the case through a process called deliberation. This will be the jury's attempt to agree on whether the defendant should be liable based on the plaintiff's claims. If they think so, they then determine the appropriate compensation for any damages.

Deliberation is the first opportunity for the jury to discuss the case, a systematic process that can last from a few hours to several weeks. Once the jury reaches a decision, the jury foreperson informs the judge, and the judge announces the verdict in open court.

Most states require a 12-person jury in a personal injury case to be unanimous. In some jurisdictions, however, civil court cases allow for verdicts based on a majority as low as nine to three.

If the jury fails to reach a unanimous or sufficient majority verdict, it will find itself in a standstill or a hung jury. In that case, the judge may declare a mistrial. The judge can dismiss the case or order the trial process to start over again with a new trial at the jury selection stage.

Seek Legal Advice From a Civil Law Attorney

The civil litigation process can be daunting and overwhelming. It contains intricate rules that are challenging to understand. Whether you are a plaintiff in a small claims case seeking a monetary amount or a party in a case for breach of contract, the legal advice of a civil law attorney can make all of the difference. They are experienced with civil procedure and can give proper guidance with your case.

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