What Happens at a Personal Injury Trial?
If you have a personal injury claim then you are probably wondering how it will end. That is a normal question. The Miami personal injury lawyers at the Wolfson Law Firm are asked this question all the time. Cases can be resolved by settlement, dismissal or jury verdict.
A majority of personal injury cases settle prior to trial. In fact, on average, more than 85% are resolved by settlement. How long that takes can vary but in our experience, cases that are not settled within 4-6 months after the accident are best placed into litigation. Before a lawsuit is filed, the insurance company controls the process and take advantage of their position of financial power.
Once a case is filed in court, then Florida law and the Rules of Civil Procedure provide a level playing field for both sides. The rules apply equally to both the plaintiff and the defendant. The law favors a fair resolution of the case within a reasonable period of time. Attempts to delay the process are strongly discouraged.
If your personal injury case were to go to trial here is what you could expect:
- Pre-trial Motions – both sides file motions before trial in an effort to limit the issues and evidence. Sometimes this is done to streamline the trial. Most of the time it is done to gain an advantage by excluding evidence or arguments. This is usually done before the jury pool is brought into the courtroom.
- Voir Dire – In a personal injury case with one plaintiff and one defendant you can expect 18-21 potential jurors to be brought to the courtroom. The potential jurors will fill out a questionnaire. The judge will then question each person individually. After the judge is done the plaintiff attorney gets to ask questions of the jury panel. Lastly the defense lawyer is allowed to inquire of the jury panel.
- Jury Selection – The judge first listens to challenges for cause which are jurors who should not be allowed to sit on this particular jury. Sometimes the parties agree. If they do not, the judge must decide whether to strike a juror for cause. After all cause challenges are exhausted, the lawyers are allowed to use their preemptory challenges which do not need to be explained but cannot be based on a variety of discriminatory reasons.
- Opening Statements – In a personal injury trial the plaintiff has the burden of proof. Therefore, the plaintiff goes first. Opening statements are supposed to provide the jury with a blueprint of what evidence is expected in trial. An opening is not supposed to include argument. But in reality, most attorneys try to gain an advantage in their opening statement and will usually preface arguments with “the evidence will show…” in order to avoid a sustained objection. After the plaintiff attorney finishes opening the defense lawyer gets to do the same but while emphasizing the defense’s evidence.
- Plaintiff’s case – In the plaintiff’s case in a personal injury trial, evidence is submitted in the form of documents, photographs, medical records, medical bills, income tax returns (if there is a lost wage claim) and testimony. At a minimum, the plaintiff and at least one of the plaintiff’s expert physicians will testify. In most trials the plaintiff will enter the mortality tables so that the jury can calculate future damages based on the life expectancy of the plaintiff.
- Defendant’s Case – The defense lawyer will also enter into evidence the same type of documentary evidence that the plaintiff entered except that evidence will support the defendant’s position. Typically the defendant and the defense experts would testify as well.
- Motions for Directed Verdict – Both sides may make motions for directed verdict at the close of the evidence and after each side has rested. In short, a motion for directed verdict is asking the judge to remove a particular issue from the jury’s consideration because there is insufficient evidence to support the claim or defense.
- Charge Conference – This is when the judge works with the lawyers to come up with a set of jury instructions which will be provided to the jury when they deliberate their verdict. Jury instructions basically set forth the law upon which the jury is to base their verdict.
- Closing Arguments – Again, because the plaintiff has the burden of proof then the plaintiff goes first and last in closing argument. The attorneys for both sides have the same amount of time for closing but the plaintiff can reserve a portion of that time to deliver a rebuttal closing.
- Deliberations – After closing arguments the judge will read the jury instructions and the verdict form out loud in the courtroom. The jury is then retired to the jury room to deliberate their verdict.
- Announcing the Verdict – Assuming the jury reaches a verdict, the verdict form is reviewed by the judge for inconsistencies and completeness. If technically acceptable, then the clerk reads the verdict to the parties and the courtroom. After the reading of the verdict, the judge will ask if either party wants to poll the jury. If requested, the judge will ask each juror if this was their verdict. Assuming that they all agree, then the judge gives the jury closing remarks along with a certificate commemorating their service and the jury is then discharged. Jurors are allowed to approach anyone after the trial, but the parties need the court’s permission to interview a juror after a trial.