As we’ve mentioned previously, one of our goals is to make sure our potential clients and clients know as much as possible about the process so that they can make informed decisions along the way. We previously discussed the phases of a personal injury claim. This piece describes the phases of the actual personal injury trial.
1. Pre-trial motions.
Most trial start with some time before the judge to determine whether there are any pre-trial issues that need to be resolved. Most of those involve trying to limit what evidence the jury hears. For example, we may try to obtain a ruling that the other side can’t tell the jury about a prior wreck. Or the other side may try to limit the evidence that we can show surrounding the other party’s conduct.
2. Voir Dire.
This is jury selection. Jury selection differs from judge to judge. Generally, the jurors are seated, and the attorneys ask them questions. The plaintiff’s lawyer generally goes first in the process, followed by the defense lawyer. During the process, each of the lawyers will usually ask the judge to strike (let go) some of the jurors “for cause.” This means there is a good reason that the juror shouldn’t serve — the jurors’ answer show a bias to one side, the juror doesn’t meet the statutory qualifications for jury service, etc. The judge makes a decision about whether a juror is struck for cause The parties then get an equal number of “peremptory” strikes — an ability to cut a limited number of reasons for discretionary reasons. The parties can use these however they like with only certain limitations (for instance, you can’t use them to discriminate racially).
3. Opening Statements.
The attorneys for each side begin the trial by telling the jury what the case is about.
After opening statements, the parties begin “putting on evidence” that the jury will use to decide the case. The evidence usually consists of testimony from witnesses and documents or other exhibits that were introduced and admitted.
5. Closing Arguments.
After the evidence is introduced, the sides are allowed to conduct closing arguments, to give the jury the arguments for why that side should win. Generally, the plaintiff’s lawyer will only use part of his allotted time, saving the rest for a rebuttal after the defendant has done his argument. So the order of arguments is usually, plaintiff’s opening argument, defendant’s argument, plaintiff’s rebuttal argument.
6. Jury Deliberations.
After the arguments, the jury is instructed to retire to the jury room with the Court’s charge (the questions the jury is asked to decide). They will deliberate until they have answered all the questions they are required to answer. In Texas, civil juries are not required to be unanimous unless dealing with punitive damages. An example of a charge in a simple car wreck case is here.
7. The Verdict and Judgment.
Once the jury answers all of the questions, they come back into the courtroom, and the judge reads their answers. The Court and the lawyer then take those answers and turn them into a Final Judgment. Depending on the complications of the case, the Judgment may be prepared anywhere from a few days after the the trial to a few months after the trial.