What to Expect When Going to Trial
Recent technologies allow us to see the reality behind trials in particular and the legal system works in general. Prior to these advances, much of what we learned about civil trial expectations came from books, movies or the occasional Matlock rerun on television.
While Matlock was a criminal attorney, there are vastly more civil cases than criminal ones in the United States. Civil cases involve personal injury negligence, contract disputes, wrongful termination, discrimination, patent infringement, workplace accidents, etc. and make up the bulk of trials in the legal system.
Since the majority of lawsuit funding involves personal injury cases, this post examines civil trial expectations or what you can expect when going to trial in an injury case. Other cases will present similar civil trial expectations. Additionally, we consider other important factors if a trial does occur.
Basic Injury Civil Trial Expectations
Trials occur before what is known as a “trier-of-fact” which can either be a judge (bench trial) or jury. The trier of fact must:
- hear evidence from both sides
- weigh the credibility of witnesses and evidence
- decide what facts are true for purposes of the proceedings
- apply those facts to the law as instructed by the judge
- render a verdict based upon the facts and law
While bench trials occur frequently, juries can be expected in most civil trials.
Civil Trial Expectations
Jury selection begins the trial proceedings. During the selection process, attorneys from both sides ask questions of prospective jurors designed to uncover potential conflicts or biases not uncovered by initial screening. This questioning is called voir dire, which is french for “to speak the truth.” Each side has the ability to remove certain jurors from the pool based upon their answers. The number of removals is specified in court rules and is limited. When no more removals are available or used, the jury is selected.
The judge’s role is to preside over the process. As the trial begins, the judge makes some preliminary instructions to the jurors and opening statements commence.
The purpose of opening statements is to tell jurors something about the case they will be hearing. Both sides make their statements but the party with the burden of proof (plaintiff) usually begins. Opening statements should be based upon facts that are to be shown by actual evidence. These statements should not be argumentative. Lawyers will argue their client’s side later in the trial.
The opening statement is one of the most important components of any trial. It is the first opportunity both parties get to speak to the jury about the case. It is intended to frame the jury’s perspective of the evidence that will be presented.
Evidence, Burdens of Proof and Putting on the Case
After the jury is selected, the case will move to the evidentiary phase of the trial. During this phase, you can expect both sides to present evidence supporting their side of the story. Since the vast majority of civil lawsuits are settled prior to trial, it is a pretty sure bet there are some real issues to be decided by the trier of fact. If not, a trial simply wouldn’t be necessary.
Civil Trial Expectations and The Burden of Proof
In order to win a lawsuit, the plaintiff must meet its burden of proof. In most civil cases, that burden is a preponderance of the evidence standard. That is, with the evidence they bring before the court, plaintiffs must show their side of the story is more likely than not. In an injury lawsuit, the burden means that considering the evidence, defendant’s actions resulted in plaintiff’s injuries more likely than not. Contrast this with the beyond a reasonable doubt standard necessary for a criminal conviction and you can see how much less of a burden this is from an evidentiary standpoint. The jury’s determination just has to tilt ever so slightly in the plaintiff’s favor.
Bear in mind, plaintiff must also show any damages are directly related to the injuries caused by the defendant’s negligence. Accordingly, plaintiff’s attorney will call the injured party, witnesses, and/or medical experts to testify.
The Use of Witnesses
Generally, two types of witnesses are used in civil cases. These are fact witnesses and expert witnesses. Fact witnesses are called to testify regarding personal observations and can include eyewitnesses, treating physicians, friends, family members, co-workers, employers and the plaintiff him/herself.
Expert witnesses are used to explain complicated evidence to the jury. These witnesses are qualified through their credentials and experience and are asked specific questions regarding various issues at trial. One example of an “expert” might be an accident reconstruction expert who offers an opinion on how an accident actually occurred. Other experts can include medical professionals, vocational rehabilitation experts, economists, and others. Generally, any issue that can be enhanced by expert testimony is allowed.
Of course, the defense will have its own experts perhaps contradicting plaintiff’s expert’s findings.
Both parties are afforded the opportunity to question the other party’s fact and expert witnesses. This is called cross-examination. The purpose of cross examination is to weaken the effect of the testimony given by pointing out inconsistencies, exceptions, conflicts or credibility.
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When all evidence is presented, lawyers from both sides offer their closing statements. Also known as summation, the lawyers “sum” up their cases for the jury and argue for their clients. Unlike opening statements, civil trial participants can expect closings to be more argumentative than opening statements. The lawyers’ job in summation is to advocate for their clients by framing the evidence in the light most favorable to their version.
Jury Instructions and Reaching a Verdict
After the closing statements, the judge reads jury instructions. These instructions instruct the jury of the laws at issue and how these standards should be applied to this particular set of facts. Afterwards, the jury heads to the jury room to deliberate – that is, to reach a decision.
The first decision is whether the plaintiff reached the burden of proof (proved the case). If the answer to this question is “yes”, then the jury must calculate awards for both economic and non-economic losses, like pain and suffering. Once a decision is reached, the verdict is read in open court and the decision entered into the record. Once the verdict is read, the civil trial phase of the proceedings concludes.
Post Trial Proceedings and Other Issues
After a verdict, civil trial expectations predict some post trial motions, appeals, and other legal posturing. Over all, civil trials are expected to be costly and time consuming affairs. This is why 95 out of 100 claims are settled prior to reaching the courtroom.
Settlement is Better for All Parties
Most legal professionals would agree that settlement is in everyone’s best interest. First, trials are time consuming and stressful. Settlement saves time and all parties avoid the stress of trial. Second, trials are expensive. Even though plaintiffs’ attorneys are normally paid only if a case is won (contingency fee arrangement), there are significant costs associated with going to trial. Some of these include:
- travel costs
- court costs
- costs for trial exhibits
- expert fees
- post trial transcript fees
- and more . . .
It should be noted that from the defendant’s (insurer’s) perspective, trials are just as risky. Insurers want to deal with claims in the most efficient way possible. Trials cost insurers the same expenses as listed above with the added expense of paying attorneys to defend the case. The idea is to pay as little as possible without having to go to trial. After all, when you place the decision with random strangers (jury), anything can and will happen.
With a settlement, the insurer’s loss is known and expenses avoided. The plaintiff gets an amount that is agreeable to him/her and plaintiff’s attorney gets his/her fee. All the parties are somewhat disappointed, but this is necessary for compromise.
Legal Advice and Counsel
If you were injured in an accident, you should consult an attorney. The consultations are usually free so you can get a feel for civil trial expectations and the legal process in general without paying an hourly fee. Because the practice of law is a localized affair, you need to consult a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction. What jurisdiction is appropriate for your case? Ask an attorney!
Remember, lawyers help you recover the most compensation possible for your injuries. This means you will have enough money to cover medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and much more. There are limitations to filing a lawsuit in certain circumstances so seeing an attorney as soon as possible is imperative.
While civil trial expectations are an interesting topic for a blog entry, the nuances of civil trials are jurisdiction specific and are beyond the scope of this article. We hope this brief introduction into this topic will aid in your understanding of your legal options and expectations. As always, all legal topics offered herein are for informational purposes only and are subject to our disclaimer.
Thank you for your interest in civil trial expectations and Fair Rate Funding.