Personal Injury Trial Process in Missouri
If you are considering pursuing legal action in a personal injury case, you may be wondering what the potential trial process will involve. The St. Louis personal injury lawyers at Gray Ritter Graham are here to help you understand what to expect in a personal injury trial.
It is important to note that each personal injury case is different, and you should consult with a Missouri personal injury attorney to determine if your case may go to trial. Our St. Louis personal injury attorneys can help guide you through the personal injury trial process. Contact us today for a free consultation!
A personal injury trial allows the plaintiff to argue his or her case that the defendant should be held legally responsible for the injuries and harm alleged, and the defendant has the chance to offer evidence to refute the plaintiff’s case. After both sides have presented their arguments, the judge or jury examines the evidence and decides whether or not the defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s claimed injuries, and if so, the amount of money damages the defendant must pay.
The vast majority of personal injury or big disputes do not go to trial mainly because they are resolved via settlement between the parties, or alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes like arbitration and mediation.
The steps in a personal injury trial are:
- Jury Selection
- Opening Statements
- Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
- Closing Arguments
- Jury Instructions
- Jury Deliberation and Verdict
1. Jury Selection
Except in 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, potential jurors will be brought into the court. There will typically be in excess of 20 jurors to account for individuals who will need to be excused for family illness, vacations, etc. The judge will give a general description of what the case is about and begin the initial questioning along with the attorneys. They will question the potential jurors generally and regarding matters pertaining to the case, and this often includes personal predispositions or life experiences that may pertain to the case. Potential jurors may be excused based on their responses to questioning, for example, if they have shown that they cannot be truly objective in deciding the case.
2. Opening Statements
In this step, each attorney gets an opportunity to address the jury in an opening statement to describe what the evidence will show. Opening statements in most cases may last 30 or 45 minutes per side. When a personal injury lawsuit involves multiple parties (multiple plaintiffs sue one defendant or one plaintiff sues multiple defendants), attorneys representing each party may give their own opening statements.
The plaintiff’s opening statement is usually given first because the plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant’s legal liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff’s attorney presents the facts of the accident or injury and details the defendant’s alleged role in causing the plaintiff’s damages. This is basically an overview of what the plaintiff’s lawyer intends to demonstrate in order to obtain a judgment against the defendant.
The defendant’s attorney gives the jury the defense’s own interpretation of the facts and sets the stage for rebutting the plaintiff’s key evidence and presenting any affirmative defenses to the plaintiff’s allegations.
3. Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
This stage is where each side presents its key evidence to the jury. The lawyers may call witnesses and experts to testify in order to strengthen their case and establish the facts as well as damages or liability. They may also introduce physical evidence, such as photographs, documents, and medical reports. They may present the testimony of expert witnesses, such as medical doctors or engineers.
Whether a witness is called by the plaintiff or the defendant, the witness testimony process is usually the following:
- The witness is called to the stand and is sworn in, where they take an oath to tell the truth.
- The party who called the witness to the stand attempts to strengthen the party’s case through direct examination, in which information is developed.
- After direct examination, the opposing party has an opportunity to cross-examine the witness often to discredit the witness or lessen the impact of the witness’ direct testimony.
- After cross-examination, the side that originally called the witness may ask additional questions to attempt to remedy any damaging effects of cross-examination.
After the plaintiff’s attorney concludes and “rests,” the defendant’s lawyer can present its own evidence seeking to show that the defendant is not liable for the plaintiff’s alleged injuries. Unlike a criminal case where a defendant often neither testifies nor calls witnesses, the defense in civil cases will usually put on a vigorous defense.
After the defendant’s lawyer has rested, the plaintiff’s attorney has an opportunity to respond to the defense’s arguments through a “rebuttal,” which is a brief period where the plaintiff may only contradict the defense’s evidence (rather than present new arguments). Sometimes, the defense may in turn have a chance to respond to the plaintiff’s rebuttal.
After both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s attorneys have had an opportunity to present their case and challenge the evidence presented by the other, both sides rest. This means 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 attorneys the chance to sum up the case by analyzing the evidence and how it supports their respective side’s position in relation to the law, in order to receive a favorable ruling. This is the last time the attorneys will be able to address the jury prior to deliberations. Typically, the plaintiff goes first, then the defense, and then the plaintiff gets a brief rebuttal.
5. Jury Instruction
The next step is jury instruction (this may also be done before closing arguments), where the judge gives the jury the set of legal standards it will need to decide whether or not the defendant should be held accountable for the plaintiff’s alleged harm. The judge instructs the jury on findings they will need to make in order to arrive at certain conclusions and describes key concepts, defines any specific injury claims the jury may consider, and discusses damages. The instruction reading may take 20-30 minutes. Then, the case goes to the jury for decision.
6. Jury Deliberation and Verdict
The jury is led to their deliberation room and a bailiff stays outside the room nearby, ready for any inquiries from the jury. Sometimes the jurors have questions about the instructions or want to have some testimony read back. If so, the jury foreperson (a jury member who acts as the spokesperson for the jury) puts the question or request in writing and presents it to the bailiff. The bailiff presents it to the judge, who reviews it and shares it with the attorneys. Then, a decision is made on how to answer or otherwise respond.
As a group, the jurors consider the case and attempt to agree on whether the defendant should be held liable for the plaintiff’s claimed injuries, and if so, the appropriate compensation for those injuries. Judges have some discretion over how long they allow the jury to deliberate. The jury deliberation process can take a short time, several hours or even more than a day or two.
Once the jury reaches a decision, the jury foreperson notifies the bailiff, who notifies the judge, who notifies the attorneys that a verdict was reached. The attorneys and the parties come into the courtroom and the jury goes back to the jury box, where the verdict is presented from the foreperson to the bailiff, the bailiff to the clerk, and the clerk to the judge. The judge reviews the verdict for completeness and usually announces the verdict in open court.
In Missouri state court, the side that wins is the one that convinces 9 out of 12 jurors to agree with his or her position. This is different from a criminal case, where the prosecution can only obtain a conviction if the verdict is unanimous. If the jury fails to reach a sufficient majority verdict and finds itself at a standstill (a “hung” jury), the judge may declare a mistrial, or the trial may start over again from the jury selection stage, although this is unusual.
Contact Our St. Louis Personal Injury Lawyers
Since 1946, Gray Ritter Graham has fought for injury victims. Our experienced personal injury attorneys understand the complex ins and outs of personal injury law and we are here for you. If you are suffering from an injury caused by others, contact us for a free consultation to discuss your personal injury case. We do not charge attorney fees unless we recover compensation.