Most car accident claims are settled at some point—sometimes after a demand letter and a few phone calls, and often without a lawsuit ever being filed in court. (Learn more about settling a car accident case.)
But what if the case does end up in court, and the two sides are simply too far apart to settle? It's rare, but some car accident lawsuits do end up going all the way to trial. Here's what to expect.
A trial is the culmination of court-based proceedings in any kind of civil lawsuit, including personal injury lawsuits stemming from car accidents. During a trial, the parties (plaintiff and defendant, usually through their respective lawyers) present evidence to a jury or judge, including witness testimony and any relevant documentation (more on trial evidence in the next section).
A car accident trial may be heard by a single judge (usually called a "bench trial") or could be tried before a jury (a "jury trial"). In some states, a jury trial must be requested as part of the original paperwork that initiates the lawsuit (typically called the "complaint").
During the trial, both sides will have the opportunity to present evidence. The plaintiff (the person who filed the lawsuit) 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) that the defendant (the person being sued) was negligent in operating his or her vehicle, and that this negligence was the cause of the car accident and the plaintiff's injuries. To do this, the plaintiff's attorney may present:
The most important witness is usually the plaintiff, who can testify as to exactly how the accident happened, the details and impact of resulting injuries, and the particulars of all "pain and suffering" endured.
(Learn more about types of evidence in a car accident case.)
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, decides 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. Especially when a counterclaim has been filed, the defendant might try to show that the plaintiff was actually at fault for the car accident. Or, the defendant might try to establish that the plaintiff's injuries are not as severe as claimed, or that the injuries were pre-existing. 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—that means addressing the jury directly, summing up the evidence presented, and making a final case for a favorable verdict.
If the case is tried to a jury, at the close of the presentation of evidence, the court will instruct the jury on the applicable law, the plaintiff's burden of proof, and the type of evidence they can consider in making a decision.
The jury will then work together to reach a decision. Most states require that at least three-quarters of the jury agree on a verdict. 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 weigh the evidence and make a decision.
Once the judge or jury has returned its verdict, the judge will order judgment entered in favor of the prevailing party. Either party may appeal certain aspects of the trial within a specified period of time. If no appeal is made, final judgment is entered, and both parties are prohibited from trying the case again.
If you're thinking about taking a car accident case to court, you'll definitely need the right lawyer on your side. You can connect with a car accident lawyer using the chat tools right on this page, and learn more about when to hire a lawyer after a car accident.