Though most car accident claims are settled before a trial, some cannot be. Sometimes, it isn’t clear who caused the accident. Other times, it is clear who caused the accident but there is disagreement over a fair settlement.
Every state’s court system is different, but the general process is fairly similar. The case will most often be tried before a jury. The judge will be there of course, but his or her role is to make sure the lawyers behave properly and to instruct the jury as to the law in the case. The judge provides the law to the jury, but the jury decides the facts and then applies the law. In a typical car accident case, the jury will be given a definition of “negligence” by the judge, and the jury will determine if the facts of the case mean that one driver or another was negligent. This type of trial is called a “jury trial.” A “bench trial” is one in which there is no jury and it is therefore the judge that makes all of the decisions. Whether to request a jury trial or a bench trial is a decision an injured person should discuss with his or her lawyer.
No matter what court the trial is in, there will be at least three distinct stages: Opening statements, the presentation of evidence, and closing statements. If it is a jury trial, the first stage will be what’s called voir dire, which is otherwise known as jury selection.
Voir Dire / Jury Selection:
Every court is different, but in general, there will be a pool of prospective jurors. The judge and often the lawyers will get to interview the jurors to determine whether or not that juror has a bias that would prevent him or her from serving fairly. For example, a juror who owned a large amount of stock in a corporation being sued would likely not be a fair juror out of concern that a jury verdict against the company could affect the juror’s pocketbook. Similarly, no judge would allow a mother to sit on a jury in her child’s trial. There are many other types of bias that the court will look for.
The attorneys will look for jurors who they think will be favorable to their cases as well as those who will not be favorable. Each attorney will try and get what he or she believes to be the “best” jury for his or her case. Once a jury is selected, the plaintiff will make an opening statement.
Plaintiff’s Opening Statement:
Here is where the plaintiff’s attorney gives the jury a “road map” of the case. He or she will explain to the jury what the case is about and what he or she expects the evidence to prove. Some attorneys use visual aids to show the jury items of interest, while others do little more than talk. The opening statement can go for as little as ten or fifteen minutes, and in extremely complex cases it can last several hours.
Defendant’s Opening Statement:
In some states, the defendant makes his or her opening statement immediately after the plaintiff. In others, the Defendant may “reserve” his or her opening statement until after the plaintiff has put all of his or her evidence on. Whether to reserve the opening statement is a strategic decision for each personal injury lawyer. Whenever it is made, the defendant’s opening statement will serve the same purpose as the plaintiff’s: To tell the jury the defendant’s view of the case. Again, this statement may be measured in minutes or in hours, depending upon the complexity of the case.
Presentation of Evidence:
The plaintiff has the job of proving his or her case, so he or she will present evidence first. Witnesses will be called, documents shown to the jury, and expert testimony may be given. In a typical car accident case, the plaintiff will be called to testify as to his or her recollection of the accident, as well as the extent of the injuries the accident called. Medical experts may be called to testify further about the plaintiff’s injuries. An accident reconstructionist may present evidence as to how the accident happens. And so on.
Each witness that is called to testify is subject to cross-examination, which is the process often depicted in movies in which the opposing side’s attorney asks questions of the witness. Cross-examination can be exciting, but it is often much more boring than depicted in movies.
Once the plaintiff is done presenting his or her evidence, it is the defendant’s turn to present evidence. The same process will occur – the defendant will call witnesses who can testify as to the important aspects of the case.
Once each side has presented all of their evidence, the judge will allow the attorneys to give their closing arguments. This is where the attorneys discuss the evidence and argue why their view of the case is more credible than the other side’s. This is another process that can be short or can stretch for even days in complex cases. Typically, the plaintiff goes first, followed by the defendant, and then the plaintiff has an opportunity to make a final rebuttal argument to address anything the defense said.
Next, the jury leaves the courtroom and goes to a separate room to deliberate, discuss the case, and reach a verdict. Although every state is different, one thing is the same in every court in the country: The jury deliberations are absolutely private. No one – not even the judge – may watch the deliberations or ask what happened in the jury room. What happens in the jury room truly stays in the jury room.
Jury deliberations can also last just a few minutes or can stretch on for days or weeks. Depending upon the type of case and the number of jurors, a verdict might require all of the jurors to agree, or 10 jurors, or 5 jurors, or some other number. Regardless of the state, a jury won’t have a proper verdict unless a majority of jurors agree.
The jurors will be given a verdict form by the judge with a series of questions. It will be the job of the jury to answer those questions. For example, in a simple car accident case, the jury will be asked to decide whether (a) The defendant was negligent in operating his or her car; (b) Whether that negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries; and (c) What is the proper dollar amount to compensate the plaintiff for those injuries.
When the jury reaches a verdict, the jury foreman will alert the bailiff and then the jury can be presented to the parties.
Presentation of the Jury Verdict:
Once court is back in session, the judge will read the jury’s verdict into the record and enter judgment reflecting the jury’s verdict. At that point, the trial is over. The case may not be over, however, because the losing party may appeal the verdict on any number of grounds. Collecting money after receiving a winning jury verdict can also take an additional amount of work.
Usually, that’s about all a car accident lawsuit will take. Thanks for reading!