While most personal injury cases settle in the pre-suit phase, a small percentage of do not settle and then have to be filed in circuit court, where the legal and factual issues are litigated. Most of those cases are settled prior to trial, either through standard negotiations between the attorneys or during a mediation conference. Generally, settlement is in the best interests of both parties in a personal injury lawsuit, but some cases are resolved through a jury trial.
How Civil Trials Work: Part I – Jury Selection and Pre-Trial Hearings
In order to get a trial date, the plaintiff or defendant must file a motion to have the court set for trial. This is usually filed after the case has gone through discovery, and the courts will always require mediation before setting a trial date. The actual trial date depends on the judges’ calendar. Certain weeks during the year are reserved for civil trials.
After a trial is set, the judge will require the parties to satisfy certain pre-trial requirements and file pre-trial pleadings. These issues are discussed and resolved during a pre-trial conference, which is also set by the judge. At this conference, the judge will resolve pre-trial legal disputes and often get involved in settlement discussions.
Pre-trial Procedures in Civil Cases
Suits begin with the filing of a complaint in the proper court. The person filing the suit is often referred to as the plaintiff, while the person or entity against whom the case is filed is often referred to as the defendant. In some areas of the law, such as domestic relations, the person filing the complaint is the petitioner, and the person against whom the case is filed is the respondent.
The complaint states the plaintiff’s version of the facts, the legal theory under which the case is brought (negligence, for example), and asks for certain damages or other relief. The plaintiff also files with the court clerk a request that a summons (or notice) be issued to the defendant. In many jurisdictions, the summons will be served by a deputy sheriff or special process server. In other jurisdictions, it may be served by mail. It notifies the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed against him or her.
After being notified, the defendant has a certain period of time to file an answer admitting or denying the allegations made in the complaint.
If the case is not resolved, the jury trial process will commence, usually a few weeks after the pre-trial conference.
The Juror Selection Process, or “Voir Dire”
Personal injury cases may be decided by juries or by judges. The parties must elect the trier of fact when filing their initial pleadings, either in the complaint (filed by the injured party) or the answer (filed by the defendant). If a jury trial is not demanded, the case will be decided by a judge.
If the case involves a jury trial, the jury will decide the issues and award damages if appropriate.
Where Do The Jurors Come From?
The clerk of the court randomly picks a number of citizens from the state’s driver’s license records and summons them to court to participate in the process. This is usually called “jury duty.” In this process, groups of potential jurors are taken into a courtroom for jury selection. If they are selected by the attorneys, they will decide the case at issue.
During jury selection, the court and the lawyers will ask questions of the potential jurors to determine if they should be chosen as jurors.
The questions generally concern knowledge of:
The parties or witnesses
Prior jury experience
Prior lawsuit or claim experience
Whether the juror can be fair in the specific case
There are complex court rules that govern this process, and the ultimate goal is to select a fair and unbiased jury to decide the issues in the case. In Florida civil trials, a jury must have 6 members and at least one alternate, who will participate in the verdict if one of the first 6 jurors cannot. For lengthier trials, there may be more alternate jurors. The jurors are not told the identity of the alternate until deliberations begin. After the jurors are chosen, they are sworn in by the judge, and the trial can begin. Jury selection generally takes the better part of the day, and in certain cases, it may take much longer. The jury selection process is extremely important and is governed by court rules to ensure a fair jury.
While Every Case In Florida Is Different, Most Personal Injury Cases Follow These Steps:
- Filing suit. The first document filed in most personal injury lawsuits is called the “complaint.” The filing of the complaint effectively begins the lawsuit.
- Discovery. Once the initial pleadings (complaint, summons, answer, counterclaim, etc.) have been filed, the parties begin the process of obtaining evidence from each other. This process is called “discovery.” The idea behind the discovery is that both parties should have access to all relevant information.
- Depositions. A deposition is the taking of an oral statement of a witness under oath, before trial. It has two purposes: To find out what the witness knows and to preserve that witness’ testimony. The intent is to allow the parties to learn all of the facts before the trial so that no one is surprised at trial.
- Expert witnesses. If the defendant denies liability for the accident or protests the amount of damages, it may be necessary to bring in expert witnesses. An expert witness is a person with specialized skill sets whose opinion may help a jury make sense of the factual evidence of a case.
- Settlement negotiations. Settlement negotiations occur during mediation. Plaintiffs, defendants, and their attorneys gather outside of the courtroom to talk through the issues and try to agree on a monetary value. If the parties agree to settlement negotiation, the parties will sign the agreement, and it will act as a contract. If the two parties can not agree, the case will go to trial.
- Trial. A trial can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the complexity of the case.
This is why it is important to hire a board-certified civil trial lawyer to handle your personal injury case and navigate the complexities of the trial process.
Joe Zarzaur is a Board Certified Civil Trial Attorney whose firm is dedicated to promoting community safety since 2007. ZARZAUR LAW’S AREAS OF PRACTICE: Serious Personal Injury, Product Defect, Auto Accidents, Cycling Accidents, Motor Vehicle Accidents, Products Liability, Wrongful Death, Community Safety, Boat and Jet Ski Accidents, Slip and Fall Injuries, and more. Licensed in Alabama and Florida.
It is also important to consult with a Board Certified Trial lawyer who has the knowledge and experience to help you. We know accidents can be stressful and want to make the process as easy as possible for you. Call Zarzaur Law, P.A. today at (855) Hire-Joe for a free legal consultation or visit www.zarzaurlaw.com.