What Happens When a Personal Injury Case Goes to Trial?

Patrick C. Barry

While most personal injury cases settle before trial, not all do. In particular, the complex cases handled by the trial lawyers at Decof, Decof & Barry, P.C. – such as medical malpractice, birth injuries, product liability and others – often require a trial to secure justice. What does this mean to a victim?

The first phase of a trial involves jury “empanelment.” This is the selection – or deselection – of members of the large jury pool to serve as the actual jury hearing a case. In Rhode Island, a civil case jury consists of six people, with generally one or two “alternates.” In Massachusetts, a civil jury is twelve people in Superior Court, generally with two alternates. The jurors generally must make a unanimous decision, which ensures that the verdict is just. The “voir dire” process allows the lawyers to speak directly with the potential jurors in order to discover any strong personal beliefs or experiences that would cause them to be an inappropriate juror for that particular case.

The more well-known aspects of a civil jury trial starts with the opening statements. The lawyer for the “plaintiffs,” the party or parties bringing the suit, goes first. The lawyers for the “defendants,” which may also be one or more parties, generally also give an opening statement, although sometimes can defer doing so until a later stage. The opening statements provide an overview of the evidence that the party expects to present at the trial.

The next segment of a trial in a personal injury case, in Rhode Island and elsewhere, is the plaintiffs’ “case-in-chief.” During this phase the plaintiffs and their counsel have the obligation to present evidence – including testimony of witnesses, medical records, photographs, and economic information such as lost earnings or medical expenses – sufficient to prove their case. The plaintiffs’ lawyer will present witnesses, pose questions to them, and “move” the related documents into evidence. The lawyers defending a personal injury claim are allowed to cross-examine each witness called, often by confronting them with conflicting evidence, prior inconsistent statements, and information pulled from the various exhibits. If the case-in-chief is not well prepared and presented very carefully, a plaintiff’s case can be dismissed when that stage is over.

If the plaintiffs’ lawyer has been successful in establishing the basics of her clients’ case, the case will proceed to the “defense case.” The lawyers essentially switch positions, with the defense lawyers putting on additional witnesses that have not been heard from previously. This may include expert witnesses, such as medical doctors, to rebut points made by the plaintiffs. In Rhode Island, it is common to face a medical expert who may claim that the plaintiff’s injury was not in fact caused by the defendant, or is not as serious as alleged. The plaintiffs’ lawyer will be allowed to cross-examine the defense witnesses, just as the defense lawyer had been allowed to do during the plaintiff’s case-in-chief.

As you can see, it is a complex process, and in serious personal injury cases it can take several days or even weeks to conclude. Even then the trial is not yet over. The final stages of a jury trial include the “closing arguments” or “summation” by the lawyers, and the actual legal “instructions” provided by the judge to the jury. The “jury instructions” tell the jury the various rules for assessing evidence and witnesses, and the things that the plaintiffs need to prove in order to win the trial. Only after all of this has been completed, will the jury actually start deliberating towards a verdict.

It is extremely important that any person who has dealt with a personal injury and wishes to bring such a case to trial obtain truly competent counsel. This can be assessed in a number of ways, which should be discussed with a personal injury lawyer at the outset of the relationship, such as experience, results and resources. An injured party can expect only a single chance to prevail in a personal injury trial, and therefore should select an attorney, like a member from our team of legal experts at Decof, Decof & Barry, for a serious injury case very carefully.

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