In a personal injury trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence to decide whether, by a "preponderance of the evidence," the defendant should be held legally liable for the injuries and harm alleged by the plaintiff. A trial is the plaintiff's opportunity to argue his or her case, in the hope of obtaining a judgment against the defendant. A personal injury trial also represents the defendant's chance to refute the plaintiff's case, and to offer his or her own evidence related to the dispute at issue. After both sides have presented their arguments, the judge or jury considers whether to find the defendant liable for the plaintiff's claimed injuries, and if so, to what extent (i.e. the amount of money damages a defendant must pay).
A complete personal injury trial typically consists of six main phases, each of which is described in detail below.
1) Choosing a Jury
Except in accident cases that are tried only before a judge, one of the first steps in a personal injury trial is the selection of a jury. During jury selection, the judge (and usually the plaintiff and the defendant through their respective attorneys) will question a pool of potential jurors generally and as to matters pertaining to the particular case -- including personal ideological predispositions or life experiences that may pertain to the case. The judge can excuse potential jurors at this stage, based on their responses to questioning.
2) Opening Statements
Once a jury is selected, the first "dialogue" in a personal injury trial comes in the form of two opening statements -- one from the plaintiff's attorney and the other from an attorney representing the defendant. No witnesses testify at this stage, and, ordinarily, no physical evidence is utilized.
Because the plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant's legal liability for the plaintiff's injuries, his or her opening statement is usually given first, and is often more detailed than that of the defendant. In some cases, the defendant may wait until the conclusion of the plaintiff's main case before making its own opening statement.
3) Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
At the heart of any personal injury trial is what is often called the "case-in-chief," the stage at which each side presents its key evidence and arguments to the jury.
In its case-in-chief, the plaintiff methodically sets forth its preserved personal injury evidence in an attempt to convince the jury that the defendant is legally responsible for the plaintiff's injuries and damages. It is at this point that the plaintiff may call witnesses and experts to testify, in order to strengthen his or her case. The plaintiff may also introduce physical evidence, such as photographs, documents, and medical reports. Especially in more complicated personal injury lawsuits such as medical malpractice and defective product claims, a plaintiff's utilization of expert testimony and documentary evidence will be crucial in proving the defendant's legal responsibility for the plaintiff's damages.
After cross-examination, the side that originally called the witness has a second opportunity to question him or her through "re-direct examination," and to attempt to remedy any damaging effects of cross-examination.
Once the plaintiff and defendant have each had an opportunity to present their case and to challenge the evidence presented by the other, both sides "rest," meaning that no more evidence will be presented to the jury before closing arguments are made.
4) Closing Arguments
Similar to the opening statement, the closing argument offers the plaintiff and the defendant in a personal injury case a chance to "sum up" the case, recapping the evidence in a light favorable to their respective positions. This is the final chance for the parties to address the jury prior to deliberations, so in closing arguments the plaintiff seeks to show why the evidence requires the jury to find the defendant legally falted for the plaintiff's injuries. In turn, the defendant tries to show that the plaintiff has fallen short of establishing the defendant's liability for any civil judgment in the plaintiff's favor.
5) Jury Instruction
After both sides of the personal injury case have had a chance to present their evidence and make a closing argument, the next step toward a verdict is jury instruction -- a process in which the judge gives the jury the set of legal standards it will need to decide whether the defendant should be held accountable for the plaintiff's alleged harm.
The judge decides what legal standards should apply to the defendant's case, based on the personal injury claims at issue and the evidence presented during the trial. Often, this process takes place with input and argument from both the plaintiff and the defendant. The judge then instructs the jury on those relevant legal principles decided upon, including findings the jury will need to make in order to arrive at certain conclusions. The case then goes "to the jury."
6) Jury Deliberation and Verdict
After receiving instruction from the judge, the jurors as a group consider the case through a process called "deliberation," attempting to agree on whether the defendant should be held legally liable for the plaintiff's claimed injuries, and if so, the appropriate compensation for those injuries. Deliberation is the first opportunity for the jury to discuss the case -- a methodical process that can last from a few hours to several weeks. Once the jury reaches a decision, the jury foreperson informs the judge, and the judge usually announces the verdict in open court.
Most states require that a 12-person jury in a personal injury case be unanimous in finding for the plaintiff or the defendant, though some states allow for verdicts based on a majority as low as 9 to 3. If the jury fails to reach a unanimous (or sufficient majority) verdict and finds itself at a standstill (a "hung" jury), the judge may declare a "mistrial," after which the case may be dismissed or the trial may start over again from the jury selection stage.