Civil Court Trials in Car Accident Cases

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If your lawsuit proceeds through the pre-trial stage of a car accident case and no settlement is reached, that means your case is headed for a trial. It's rare, but it happens. Read on to learn what you can expect at a typical car accident trial in civil court.

Jury Selection

After any preliminary matters are resolved -- including last minute motions raising technical legal issues -- jury selection begins (assuming yours is a jury trial). The potential jurors are brought into the courtroom and sworn in. The judge makes introductory comments, explaining what the case is about and the jury selection procedures that will be followed. You will probably be identified to the prospective jurors, as will the defendant and the lawyers for each side.

Then, the potential jurors are asked questions in what is called voir dire. In some states, the judge asks the questions, usually based on issues raised by the lawyers for each side. In other states, the lawyers get to question potential jurors directly.

If any jurors reveal that they cannot be fair, they are excused "for cause." Using information learned through voir dire and the little bit of information provided about each potential juror, your lawyer can strike (excuse) a limited number of potential jurors for no reason or for any reason, and your lawyer does not have to say what the reasons are. He or she simply exercises a "peremptory challenge" and eliminates a juror.

In some states, there are 12 civil jurors, but others have fewer. In addition, if your case will last more than one day, the judge will probably also seat one or more alternate jurors. The alternates will hear all of the evidence and will replace any jurors who cannot complete the case for any reason, such as illness. When jury deliberation begins at the end of the case, the unneeded alternates are excused. They do not participate in deciding the case. Of course, if your trial is being heard by a judge instead of a jury -- this is sometimes called a "bench trial" -- you skip the jury selection process and go straight to the next step.

Opening Statements

After the jury is selected, opening statements are made. The lawyer for the plaintiff (your lawyer) speaks first, followed by the lawyer for the defendant. Or, the defense lawyer can elect to wait until after the plaintiff's case is over to make an opening statement. Most defense lawyers make an opening statement at the beginning of the trial. Opening statements (not opening "arguments") are designed to tell the jurors what the lawyers think the evidence will be. They are often compared to road maps or tables of contents.

Evidence

Next, the evidence is presented, beginning with your evidence. Evidence consists of testimony given from the witness stand and exhibits introduced into evidence. This is the heart of the trial.

Direct and Cross-Examination. When a witness is called to testify, the lawyer who called the witness questions first. This is called direct examination. Then, the other lawyer can ask questions in what is called cross examination. After the second lawyer questions the witness, the first lawyer can ask questions about issues raised on cross examination in redirect examination. Then the second lawyer can ask more questions in a re-cross examination, and so on. Basically, the questioning continues in alternating fashion until the lawyers run out of questions. The judge is also allowed to ask questions. Some do and some don't.

Exhibits. Most exhibits -- like documents, photos, and other tangible evidence -- are introduced as witnesses testify. The lawyer who wants the exhibit to go into evidence offers it into evidence. If the other lawyer opposes the exhibit being considered by the jury, that lawyer objects and the judge rules on the objection.

When your lawyer finishes calling all of the witnesses and introducing all of the exhibits that he or she wants, the plaintiff "rests." Unless the judge rules that the plaintiff has not proven a case -- in which case the trial is over and you lose -- the defendant then can call witnesses and introduce exhibits. The same procedures are followed for the examination of witnesses and introduction of evidence as are followed when the plaintiff is presenting evidence. After the defense finishes its case, the plaintiff can present "rebuttal evidence" to rebut (or contradict) the defense case.

Jury Instructions

After all of the evidence has been presented, the judge instructs the jurors on the law that applies to the case. The jurors are told to accept this law as it is given to them by the judge, decide the facts and reach conclusions about the case.

Closing Arguments

In most states, the closing arguments of the lawyers precede the judge's instructions on the law, but in some states, the instructions come before the closing arguments. The first closing argument is made by the lawyer for the plaintiff. Then the defense lawyer makes a closing argument. Finally, the lawyer for the plaintiff gets the last word. The plaintiff's lawyer speaks first and last because it is the plaintiff that has to prove the case. If the plaintiff does not prove his case, the plaintiff loses. Therefore, the plaintiff's lawyer gets the advantage of arguing first and last.

Jury Deliberations

After arguments are completed, if she has not already done so, the judge explains how deliberations are to be conducted and then the jurors retire to the jury deliberation room to make their decision which, in most states, must be unanimous.

Updated by: , J.D.

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