Anatomy of a Lawsuit
I’m sure you’ve seen enough TV shows to be generally familiar with the stages of a civil trial, but the trial is just the last part of a lawsuit and most cases settle long before then. Hopefully you’ll never find yourself involved in Personal Injury Litigation, but here is a brief description of the process – the Anatomy of a Personal Injury Lawsuit.
Not all Personal Injuries, like Car Accidents or Slip and Fall Accidents, result in a formal lawsuit which is filed in Court. The vast majority of all Personal Injury claims are settled short of a verdict. In fact, many Injury claims are settled through negotiations even before a formal lawsuit is filed. A settlement avoids the risk, expense, and stress involved with civil litigation, which is the reason why a lot of Personal Injury cases resolve with a settlement agreement and without a lawsuit having been filed.
If the Personal Injury claim cannot be settled, a lawsuit needs to be filed before the relevant time limit – or Statute of Limitations – runs. In a Personal Injury case in Pennsylvania, the Statute of Limitations is usually two years. If a civil lawsuit is not filed before the time limit, it can be dismissed as being untimely.
The Pleadings stage is the beginning of a lawsuit. Once it is decided that a case cannot be settled and Court intervention is required, the injured party, or Plaintiff, files a Complaint with the Court. The Complaint is the written document starting a lawsuit and it sets forth the Plaintiff’s dispute with the other party or parties, the Defendant or Defendants. The Complaint also describes generally what the Plaintiff seeks to recover in the lawsuit. Once the Complaint is filed, it must be served upon the Defendant, usually by a Sheriff personally serving the Complaint. The Defendant is required to respond to the allegations set forth in the Complaint and raise any defenses in an Answer that is filed with the Court. Thereafter, the Plaintiff must file a Reply to any defenses contained in the Answer.
After the Pleadings stage, the parties engage in Discovery in order to prepare for trial. The purpose of Discovery is to allow each party to learn about the other party’s case in order to encourage settlement and to prevent unfair surprise if the case goes to trial.
In Discovery, each party can send written questions to the other side (Interrogatories) and ask the other party to provide copies of relevant documents (Requests for Production). Each party can also ask to take the Deposition of the other party, which is an interview under oath in front of a court reporter regarding the subject matter of the case. Other witnesses can be subpoenaed for Depositions, and either party can issue Subpoenas for relevant documents from people other than the other party.
If either party is going to be using expert witnesses to testify at trial, then they must produce Expert Reports outlining the proposed testimony of the expert and all of the opinions he or she will offer at trial.
There are generally six phases of a Jury Trial: (1) Jury Selection; (2) Opening Statements; (3) Testimony and Evidence; (4) Closing Arguments; (5) Jury Charge; and (6) Verdict.
In a Jury Trial, the first phase of the Trial begins with Jury Selection. A pool of jurors (usually about 50) is brought into the courtroom and each juror has a number from 1 to 50. Then, the judge and/or attorneys for both parties ask the jurors questions to determine whether they know any of the parties, attorneys, and witnesses or whether they have had any experiences or have strong feelings on certain issues which would not allow them to be fair and impartial. Once the questioning is complete, each attorney can ask that certain jurors be stricken from the jury pool due to some disclosed bias prejudice or another reason making them unable to serve such as school, job or family obligations. After the judge rules on the “for cause” challenges, each party can also strike a set number of other jurors (usually around 4) who they think would likely favor the other side. These are called “peremptory strikes.” Once the strikes are complete, the first 12 remaining jurors constitute the jury panel for the Trial.
After Jury Selection, Opening Statements are presented to the jury. The Plaintiff’s Opening Statement is intended to give the jurors a “roadmap” of the Trial – to describe to the jury what the Plaintiff intends to prove. Normally, the facts of the case are outlined and the witnesses and important evidence are discussed. Argument is not permitted in the Opening Statement. The Defendant can decide to give an Opening Statement or defer the statement until after Plaintiff presents its testimony and evidence.
After Opening Statements, the parties present their Testimony and Evidence. The Plaintiff goes first by calling witnesses and offering exhibits into evidence. Each witness may be cross-examined by the Defense. Next, the Defendant may call witnesses and introduce evidence to support its defenses. The Defense witnesses can be cross-examined by the Plaintiff’s attorney. Thereafter, the Plaintiff may present witnesses or evidence in rebuttal to the Defendant’s case.
Once all testimony is complete, the attorneys deliver Closing Arguments. During the Closing Arguments, the attorneys are able to argue why the facts and applicable law should lead to a verdict in their favor. The Plaintiff goes first. After Plaintiff’s Closing Argument, the Defendant presents its closing. Finally, after the Defendant’s closing, the Plaintiff’s attorney usually presents a brief rebuttal argument.
After Closing Arguments, the judge must give the Jury Charge. In the charge, the judge explains to the jury all of the law applicable to the case so that the jury can reach a proper verdict. The Jury Verdict itself marks the conclusion of the Trial.
Tim Rayne is a partner in the full-service law firm of MacElree Harvey, Ltd. which has over 35 attorneys in offices located in Kennett Square, Bala Cynwyd, and West Chester, PA and Centreville, DE. Tim focuses his law practice in Personal Injury Law, helping people who have been injured in accidents understand their legal rights and receive fair treatment from insurance companies. Tim can be reached at 610.840.0124 or [email protected]. For more News and Information on Personal Injury law, check out Tim’s website at https://timraynelaw.com.