When a Car Accident Case Goes to Trial

If you can’t reach a settlement, you may have to take your car accident case to trial. Here's what to expect.

By , Attorney · University of Tulsa College of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Most car insurance claims settle before anyone has to file a car accident lawsuit. And most car accident lawsuits are resolved long before trial. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), only around 4% of personal injury lawsuits (called "torts") made it to trial in state courts in 2005.

But of the estimated 16,397 tort cases that did end in trial in 2005, nearly 60% were automobile cases. Some car accident cases simply can't be settled. Maybe there's a disagreement about who was at fault for the accident. Or maybe both sides agree that the person suing was injured, but can't agree on the right amount of compensation for those injuries.

The exact rules governing trials vary from state to state, but many states follow similar trial procedures. In this article, we'll answer your questions about car accident trials, including:

  • Who will be at the trial?
  • What sort of evidence may be introduced?
  • What is the judge's role?
  • What does a jury do?
  • Do I need a lawyer if my car accident case goes to trial?

What Is a Car Accident Trial?

If you can't settle your car accident case through the insurance claim process, you'll have to drop it or go to court and file a car accident lawsuit. A lawsuit is a type of formal legal action that happens in the civil court system.

Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff (the person suing) files a complaint against the defendant (the person being sued). Both sides exchange information about the case through formal discovery. After discovery is complete, if the parties still can't reach a car accident settlement, the case heads to trial.

During a car accident trial, the plaintiff and defendant (typically through their respective lawyers), present evidence and make arguments to the fact finder. According to BJS, juries decided about 90% of the tort cases that went to trial in 2005. The remaining 10% of trials were decided by judges alone in "bench trials."

Jury Selection in a Car Accident Trial

Jurors play a critical role in most car accident trials. Jurors listen to the evidence, decide what happened, reach a verdict about who is liable according to the law, and award damages. According to the National Center for State Courts, 33 states use a 12-person jury for civil trials. Other states use six, seven, or eight-member juries for civil trials.

Jurors are selected during the first stage of the trial. The legal term for jury selection is "voir dire," which is French for "to speak the truth." During jury selection, the judge asks the potential jurors questions to determine if they have any biases or prejudices that may keep them from being fair and impartial jurors. The plaintiff and defendant—again, typically through their respective attorneys—usually ask jurors follow-up questions. Jury selection continues until all of the members of the jury are accepted as jurors for the trial. Alternate jurors may also be selected.

After the jury is selected, members of the jury take an oath that they will reach a verdict based only on the evidence presented in the trial and the court's instructions about the law.

Opening Statements

Once the jury is sworn in, the parties make opening statements. The plaintiff usually goes first, because the plaintiff has the burden of proof. Car accident plaintiffs typically must prove by a preponderance of the evidence—a more likely than not standard—that the defendant was at fault for the accident and their damages.

The opening statement is an opportunity for each side to tell the jury what they expect the evidence will show. Opening statements aren't evidence. The purpose of an opening statement is to give the jury an overview of the case and the issues the jury will have to decide.

The Plaintiff Presents Evidence

Following opening statements, the plaintiff presents evidence. Again, the plaintiff goes first because the plaintiff has the burden of proof.

Evidence may include the testimony of witnesses who are under oath to tell the truth. For example, the plaintiff may testify about how the accident happened and the injuries and vehicle damage caused by the accident. The plaintiff may also call bystanders, medical experts, and other car accident witnesses. Witnesses are kept out of the courtroom until they testify so that they speak from their own knowledge and don't change their stories based on what they hear other witnesses say.

Evidence may also include written documents and objects like road debris, X-rays, photographs, and other physical things called "exhibits."

A court reporter keeps a record of the entire trial and the court clerk keeps track of any documents, photographs, and other physical evidence introduced.

The Defendant Presents Evidence

When the plaintiff is done presenting evidence, the defendant then has a turn to present evidence. Unlike plaintiffs, defendants typically aren't required to present evidence because the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, not them. But most defendants take the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

For example, the defendant may take the stand to refute the plaintiff's story about how the accident happened. The defendant may also call a medical expert to say that the plaintiff's injuries aren't as serious as the plaintiff is claiming or couldn't have happened the way the plaintiff says they happened.

Both sides have a chance to question their own witnesses first on direct examination. Then each side has a chance to question the other side's witnesses on cross-examination.

Defendants also have a chance to introduce their own photographs, documents, and other physical evidence to undercut the plaintiff's case and bolster their claims about how the accident happened.

Closing Arguments

Following the close of evidence, each side gives a closing argument. Closing arguments are a chance for the plaintiff and defendant to highlight key pieces of evidence and try to persuade the jury (or judge in a bench trial) to reach a verdict in their favor.

The jury is typically asked to decide whether the defendant is liable (legally responsible) for harming the plaintiff and, if so, how much money to award the plaintiff in damages.

Jury Deliberation

After hearing closing arguments and the judge's instructions on the law, the jury moves to the jury room to talk about the case. All of the jury's discussions are confidential—the jury and only the jury is present during deliberations.

The jury picks a foreperson to organize deliberations and communicate with the judge. The goal of deliberation is to reach an agreement on a verdict. Most states require that at least three-quarters of the jury agree on a verdict. Juries can deliberate for as long as they want, there is no set time limit.

The Jury Reaches a Verdict—Maybe

Juries usually—but not always—reach a verdict. When a jury can't reach an agreement, the foreperson tells the judge that the jury is deadlocked. The judge may encourage the jury to continue to deliberate if a verdict seems possible or declare a mistrial and let the jury go.

If the jury reaches a verdict, the foreperson tells the judge. 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.

Most car accident trials last a few days, but they can take weeks or even months, depending on the complexity of the evidence, the number of witnesses, and the seriousness of the injuries involved.

For plaintiffs, winning a trial is one thing—actually collecting a judgment in a car accident is another.

Jury Verdict Examples

Here are some real-world jury verdicts in car accident cases, courtesy of our readers.

Virginia Case Involving Torn Rotator Cuff

In heavy traffic on Route 66 in Northern Virginia, Walter Reusche's vehicle was rear-ended by another driven by Inocentes M. Lutz. Mr. Reusche claimed that Ms. Lutz's failure to keep a proper lookout and maintain a safe distance between vehicles amounted to negligence. Mr. Reusche also claimed that he sustained a torn rotator cuff, which required surgery. Mr. Reusche, a 40 year-old who worked as a computer technician, claimed medical bills of $12,000 and lost income of $2,000.

Ms. Lutz admitted fault for the car accident but disputed the extent of Mr. Reusche's car accident injuries.

After deliberating for about 1½ hours, a jury returned a verdict of $20,000 for Mr. Reusche.

Analysis: Because Mr. Reusche had to go through shoulder surgery, a jury might have been expected to award more for pain and suffering than this one did. Mr. Reusche "demanded" $30,000 before trial, but Ms. Lutz's insurance company, Allstate, offered only $14,000. After paying an expert witness (his orthopedic surgeon) to testify, and considering the time and hassle that it took to get the case to trial, it turned out that going to court didn't add much, if anything, to what Mr. Reusche would have netted if he had accepted the defense's settlement offer. Of course, it's always easy to make these judgments after the case is over.

Texas Case Involving Pedestrian Death

Fifty-two year old David Peterson was standing on a sidewalk outside his car in a parking lot, when a van driven by Victoria T. Esparza, an employee of American Habilitation Service, Inc. (AHS), jumped a curb, hit two parked cars and then struck Mr. Peterson. The lawyer for the plaintiff argued that Ms. Esparza was going at least 30 miles per hour when she hit Mr. Peterson and that AHS negligently hired Ms. Esparza because she had a poor driving record. (Learn more about employer liability for employee-caused car accidents.)

Mr. Peterson sustained multiple fractures throughout his lower, upper and mid-body, a brain injury and a subarachnoid hemorrhage. He died as a result of his injuries.

Mr. Peterson's family argued that he would have earned $1.4 million to $1.8 million over his remaining work life.

A Texas jury awarded damages against both AHS and Esparza, and in favor of Mr. Peterson's surviving family members. The total verdict was $4,280,000.

Analysis: This case illustrates that "wrongful death actions", which are controlled by state law, normally benefit surviving family members. In this case, the family members were able to recover for "loss of society and companionship," loss of inheritance, loss of pecuniary contribution, and mental anguish. In a separate "survival action," there was also an award for Mr. Peterson's conscious pain and suffering, and for the cost of treating him before his death.

California Bicyclist Runs Into Open Car Door

Scheherezede was riding her bicycle on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. The driver of a parked car opened his door, and Scheherezede ran into it. She was thrown onto the road and another driver ran over her left arm.

The owner of the car who opened his door claimed that Scheherezede was not paying attention. The driver of the car that ran over her left arm claimed he didn't have time to avoid her. (Learn more about common fault issues in bike-versus-car accidents.)

A jury decided that the driver who ran over Scheherezede's arm wasn't to blame, that the driver with the open door was 65 percent at fault, and that Scheherezede was 35 percent at fault.

The jury awarded Scheherezede $103,331. However, because of Scheherezede's comparative negligence, this amount was reduced to $56,620.

Comments: Scheherezede is fortunate that her bicycle accident happened in California, a comparative negligence state. If this case had been filed in one of the five contributory negligence states, Scheherezede would not have been able to recover anything (because any contributory negligence in those states completely defeats the claim). Learn more about comparative and contributory negligence in car accident cases.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Car Accident Trial?

You aren't required to hire a lawyer to file a lawsuit or go to trial. But representing yourself in court is no simple task. You have to know and follow the same complex rules of procedure and evidence that lawyers spend years studying and practicing in the courtroom. You will be at a real disadvantage if you go it alone.

A lawyer can take you through the entire process of filing a car accident lawsuit, negotiating a potential settlement, and advocating for you in court if necessary. A lawyer can give you a sense of how much your case might be worth and what the odds are that you'll win at trial. Having a lawyer on your side will help you get the best possible outcome in your case.

Learn more about attorneys' fees and how an attorney can help with your car accident claim. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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