What Happens During a Personal Injury Trial?
After being injured or tragically killed in an accident that was caused by another person’s or company’s negligence, the injured party (or their family members), who are called the “plaintiffs,” will often hire an experienced personal injury lawyer to hold the defendant accountable and compensate the plaintiff for all of their injuries and losses.
Because insurance companies are known for lowballing accident victims who aren’t represented by a lawyer, hiring a Houston Personal Injury Attorney and filing a personal injury lawsuit is the only way to hold the individual or company that caused the accident fully accountable and recover the damages the plaintiff deserves – including their past and future medical bills, lost wages, and non-economic damages (i.e., pain and suffering, physical impairment, physical disfigurement, mental anguish)
After the lawsuit is filed, the parties will have an opportunity to settle the case at mediation, which takes place before trial, by attempting to agree upon an amount of money that the defendant agrees to pay and that the plaintiff is willing to accept as full compensation for their injuries and damages.
The Personal Injury Trial: When Settlement Negotiations Fail
When the plaintiff and defendant are unable to come to an agreement, then the personal injury case will go to trial. Depending on whether it’s a bench or jury trial, a judge or jury will hear and review the evidence and witness testimony and decide whether the defendant was negligent (at fault) and, if so, how much money to award the plaintiff for their damages and losses.
The following is a basic description of each of the phases of a personal injury trial:
Voir Dire: Selection of the Jury
The first phase of a personal injury trial is jury selection or “voir dire.”
The plaintiff’s and the defendant’s lawyer will individually question a group of potential jurors in order to determine whether they hold any opinions and beliefs that would prevent them from being fair and impartial in the event they’re selected to serve on the jury. After careful questioning and consideration by the lawyers, both sides will eliminate (“strike”) the jurors that the attorneys believe cannot be fair and impartial.
Of the potential jurors that are left, between 6 and 12, depending on the court, will be selected to serve as the jurors in the case.
Once the jury has been selected, the attorneys for each side will present their “opening statement.”
Since the plaintiff (injured party) has the burden of proving the defendant’s negligence and the amount of damages the plaintiff suffered as a result, the plaintiff will always open and close first – and before the defendant.
During opening, the lawyers provide the jury or judge with a road map of the evidence and testimony that they intend to introduce over the course of the trial and identify why they believe their side should win the case.
The Plaintiff, who starts first, will explain how the accident happened, why the defendant is responsible for their injuries, and summarize the damages that they suffered as a result of the defendant’s negligent conduct.
The defendant’s attorney will follow with the facts and evidence that they believe establishes that the defendant was not negligent in causing the accident and that the plaintiff was either not injured in the accident or not as injured as they claim to be.
Witness Direct Testimony and Cross Examination
After presenting their opening arguments, the Plaintiff begins their “case in chief”. This is where the plaintiff calls and questions its witnesses on the stand before the jury or judge and introduces its exhibits (documents, photographs, videos and other material evidence).
After being sworn in (i.e., giving an oath to tell the truth), the witness is asked questions by the attorney who called them to testify. This is called “direct exam.”
Once the attorney finishes questioning the witness, the opposing attorney is entitled to “cross examine” the witness about the testimony that they provided during “direct.
Once each side has completed its case in chief and no longer has any exhibits or witnesses to present in their case, each side will present its “closing” arguments.
Unlike “opening” arguments, where the attorneys are limited to discussing the facts of the case, the closing argument is where the attorneys are permitted to argue why their clients should win the trial.
Since the plaintiff has the burden of proof, they are not only entitled to make closing arguments first, but are also provided the opportunity to make “rebuttal” arguments to counter the arguments that the defendant’s lawyer made during their closing.
As a result, the plaintiff is always the last to speak to the jury or judge before they begin deliberations.
During closing, an experienced personal injury lawyer will utilize the evidence and testimony presented during trial to explain (1) why the jury or judge must rule in favor of the plaintiff and (2) how much compensation the defendant should be required to pay the plaintiff to make up for the injuries, medical expenses and financial loss that the plaintiff suffered as a result of the defendant’s negligent or wrongful conduct.
After both sides have made their closing arguments, the judge will provide instructions that the jury must apply and follow during deliberations, which is when the jury reviews the evidence and determines who wins the trial.
If the jury determines that the defendant was negligent and, as a result, is responsible for causing the plaintiff’s injuries, the jury will then decide how much money to award the plaintiff in damages and as compensation for his or her injuries, medical expenses and other financial and non-economic losses, including pain and suffering, mental anguish, physical impairment and physical disfigurement.
Depending on the complexity of the case, the deliberation can last for hours or even weeks.
In most state courts, like Texas, only 9 of the 12 jurors are required to agree on the amount of damages to be awarded. In federal courts, however, the jury is required to be unanimous (meaning they all must agree) on the amount of damages to award.
In the event that 9 of the 12 jurors can’t reach an agreement (or if they’re not unanimous in federal court), it’s referred to as a “hung jury.” When a hung jury occurs, the trial is concluded and the lawyers are required to start the trial over again with a new jury.
The jury’s final decision on liability and damages is called the “verdict.”
The verdict is a legally binding decision that adjudicates (or decides) whether the defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s injuries and how much it must pay to the plaintiff in monetary damages.
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