Most automobile accident claims are successfully settled, sometimes without a lawsuit ever having been filed. (Learn more about settling a car accident case.) But what if all attempts at resolving your claim amicably have failed? In that case, a trial may provide the only resolution to your automobile accident case. This article addresses what you can expect if your accident case goes to trial.
As a type of civil proceeding, a trial is the culmination of court-based proceedings in a personal injury lawsuit. During a trial, parties to a dispute present evidence to a court that has authority to hear the claim and enter a final judgment.
A car accident case may be tried to a judge (a “bench trial”) or may be tried to a jury (a “jury trial”). In most states a jury trial must be requested as part of the original paperwork that initiates the lawsuit (typically called the “Complaint”). (Learn more about getting a car accident case started.)
During the trial, both sides will have the opportunity to present evidence. The Plaintiff has the burden of proving the elements of his or her case by a standard called "a preponderance of the evidence."
In a car accident claim, this generally means that the plaintiff will need to convince the jury (or judge in a bench trial) that the defendant was negligent and this negligence was the cause of the accident and the plaintiff’s injuries.
To establish that the defendant caused the accident, the plaintiff may present evidence in the form of testimony -- from the plaintiff him or herself, witnesses to the accident, or anyone else. The plaintiff will also present evidence relating to his or her injuries, medical treatment, and damages. This evidence can be in the form of medical bills and records and testimony from treating physicians.
The most important witness is usually the plaintiff, who can testify as to the cause of the accident, the injuries sustained, and any pain and suffering endured.
The defendant has the opportunity to cross-examine the plaintiff and his or her witnesses and can object to the introduction of evidence. The judge, in accordance with rules of evidence, makes the decision as to what evidence will be admitted or kept out.
After the plaintiff’s case is presented, the defendant will have the opportunity to present his or her side. During the defendant’s presentation, he or she may try to establish the existence of any relevant defenses, such as that the plaintiff was also at fault in causing the accident. The defendant will also likely present his own expert witnesses to establish that the plaintiff’s injuries are not as severe as plaintiff claims, or that the injuries were not caused by the accident. The plaintiff can cross-examine the defendant and his or her witnesses and can object to the introduction of evidence.
After both sides have finished presenting their cases to the judge or jury, each side can give closing arguments. Closing arguments offer each side the opportunity to address the jury directly, to sum up the evidence presented, and to make a request for judgment in his or her favor.
If the case is tried to a jury, at the close of the presentation of evidence, the court will instruct the jury on the law. The judge will tell the jury about the plaintiff’s burden of proof and the type of evidence they can consider in making a decision. The judge will give the jury the elements of negligence and ask them to determine if the plaintiff has met those elements and if so, to render a verdict in plaintiff’s favor.
The jury will then work together to reach a decision. Most states require that at least three-quarters of the jury agree on a decision in order for it to be valid. Once a decision is reached, the jury returns to the court to give the judge their decision.
If your case is tried to the judge and not a jury, he or she will assume the role of jury, weigh the evidence and render a decision.
Once the judge or jury has returned its verdict, the judge will order that judgment be entered in favor of the prevailing party. The clerk of courts will enter judgment. If either party is unhappy with any part of the decision, he or she may appeal the judgment to an appeals court within a specified period of time. If no appeal is made, then the judgment of the trial court remains final. Once a case has had a final judgment entered, both parties are prohibited from trying the case again.