When a Car Accident Case Goes to Trial

Your car accident lawsuit hasn't settled and now your case is on the eve of trial. Here's what to expect.

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The vast majority of all car accident insurance claims are resolved before any lawsuit is filed. And of the car accident lawsuits that do get filed, most of those cases are resolved by settlement agreement before a trial takes place.

But it's also true that not all car accident cases can be settled. Perhaps the parties can’t agree on who caused the accident. Perhaps the parties can agree that the plaintiff was injured, but they can’t come to an agreement on the amount of compensation that should be paid for those injuries.

If your car accident case cannot be resolved by a settlement, then you may be wondering what happens if your case goes to trial. The rules governing trials vary from state to state, but there are some concepts and procedures for trials that are common to most states, and we'll look at those in the sections that follow.

Jury Selection in a Car Accident Trial

In most states, a jury (as opposed to a judge) decides the key issues in a car accident case. The jury is typically comprised of twelve persons, but sometimes that number can be lower.

The first stage of the trial is called voir dire, and it is during this stage that the jury members are selected. In this phase potential jurors are asked a series of questions so that the lawyers and the judge can learn more about them. The purpose of the questions is to determine if the person has any biases or prejudices that might keep them from being fair and impartial.

Opening Statements

Once the jury is selected, the parties then make opening statements. The plaintiff’s attorney usually goes first, because the plaintiff has the burden of proving all of the allegations in the case. The opening statement is the opportunity for each party’s attorney to set the stage for the jury and lay out their side of the case -- what they will prove or refute. In most states, opening statements usually last about fifteen to twenty minutes.

The Plaintiff’s Presentation of Evidence

Following the opening statements, the plaintiff’s attorney presents the plaintiff’s case. Again, the plaintiff’s side goes first in presenting the evidence because the plaintiff has the "burden of proof." The attorney presents evidence on the issues by calling witnesses.

For example, to establish how the car accident occurred, the plaintiff’s attorney would probably call the plaintiff to testify about his or her observations just before and during the crash, and at the scene shortly afterward. The attorney may also call any bystanders or other car accident witnesses.

A similar pattern is followed in presenting evidence on other issues in the case, though the particular witnesses might not be the same.

For example, to show the jury evidence of the plaintiff’s injuries in the car accident, the plaintiff’s attorney might ask questions directly to the plaintiff regarding the injuries suffered. Following that, the plaintiff’s attorney might call as a witness the plaintiff’s doctor. Questions posed to the doctor might address issues concerning the medical treatment that was required following the car accident, and the plaintiff’s prognosis for a full recovery.

The Defendant’s Presentation of Evidence

Once the plaintiff’s attorney has presented to the jury all of the witnesses the attorney believes necessary to prove the plaintiff’s side of the case, the plaintiff then “rests” the case. Doing so signifies to the judge that it is the defendant’s turn to present evidence.

The defendant’s presentation of evidence follows the same format as that for the plaintiff. The defendant’s attorney calls witnesses to testify to the jury on the issues raised by the case. Just as in the plaintiff’s case, the testimony of those witnesses called by the defendant’s attorney typically supports the claims and defenses of the side calling the witnesses.

For example, the defendant’s attorney might call a witness who saw the car accident and who contradicts the plaintiff’s version of the events. On the issue of injuries, the defendant might present another of the plaintiff's treating doctors who has an opinion different than the doctor who was called as a witness by the plaintiff’s attorney.

Closing Arguments

Following the evidence, the attorney for each side gives a closing argument. While the opening statement at the beginning of the trial addresses what each attorney expects the evidence will show, in a closing argument each attorney talks to the jury about the evidence that was actually presented. The closing argument is each attorney’s opportunity to persuade the jury to draw certain conclusions from the evidence, and then render a verdict in favor of a particular party.

Jury Deliberation

Following the closing arguments, the jury proceeds to a room apart from the courtroom where it then deliberates on the evidence and eventually reaches a verdict. Jury deliberations in all states are confidential, and neither the parties nor the judge observe the deliberations. Most juries reach a verdict in a car accident case within several hours, though there is no set time limit. Sometimes jury deliberations can last for days.

The Jury Reaches a Verdict

Once the jury reaches a verdict, it notifies the judge that the deliberations have concluded. The judge then brings the jury back into the courtroom where the verdict is read to the parties and made a part of the official record of the court.

Jury trials in car accident typically last only a few days from the time jury selection begins until a verdict is reached. However, there is no set rule. The length of a trial largely varies with the complexity of the case and with the local court procedures applicable in your state.

A verdict in your favor is one thing; collecting your money is another. Learn more about Collecting a Judgment in a Car Accident Case.

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