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What Happens During a Jury Trial?

You’ve had to file a lawsuit on your automobile accident claim. You’ve been through the discovery process and mediation, and your case didn’t settle. Your attorney now has to try your case in Court. What does that mean?

In North Carolina, if you cannot settle your car accident claim with the insurance company, your only choice is to file a lawsuit in the North Carolina courts. The ultimate conclusion is that you will try your case in front of a jury of 12 of your peers and they will make the final decision on your case (called a verdict). They will be asked to answer usually two questions: 1) was the defendant negligent in causing the accident and did it cause injury to the plaintiff, and 2) what amount, if any, is the plaintiff entitled to recover?

In the average motor vehicle injury case, a jury trial will last anywhere from 1-3 days. This could be longer depending on the number of witnesses that will need to be called to testify. The following is a brief summary of the phases of a jury trial:

  • Motions in Limine: This is where both attorneys will argue in front of the judge to include or exclude certain evidence that is in dispute.
  • Jury Selection: This is the process whereby the attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant will question the pool of prospective jurors and choose 12 unbaised and impartial people to decide the case.
  • Opening Statements: After a jury is chosen, each side has the option of giving an Opening Statement to the jury. The plaintiff goes first, and the defendant goes second. Opening statements are not argument and only facts and a forecast of the evidence that will be introduced at trial can be discussed.
  • Plaintiff’s Case: This is where the plaintiff’s attorney will lay out before the jury all of the evidence they have in support of the case. This is done by calling witnesses to the stand to give testimony, and introduction of evidence such as photographs, medical records and bills and other supporting documents to prove the case. The two key witnesses involved will be the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s treating physician although other witnesses can also be called.
  • Defendant’s Case: This is where the defendant’s attorney will introduce their own witnesses and documentary evidence in opposition to the plaintiff’s case. The defendant can choose not to put on any evidence at all and just argue against the plaintiff’s evidence. If the defendant chooses not to put on any evidence, they get to the option of going last in the Closing Statements.
  • Closing Statements: This is where both attorneys get to “argue” to the jury about the evidence that has been introduced. The plaintiff’s attorney will most likely ask for a certain dollar amount to be awarded to the plaintiff.
  • Jury Charge: This is where the judge will read to the jury all of the law that applies to the case. This usually lasts about 20 minutes and then the judge will excuse the jury to deliberate.
  • Deliberations: After the jury receives the law, they will retire to a jury room. They will first select a foreman who will oversee the deliberations. The jury will then begin discussing the case and will work towards a unanimous decision regarding the case.

The jury must come to a verdict by unanimous decision (meaning all must agree). If they cannot agree (hung jury), then the judge can declare a mistrial. If the jury is able to render a verdict, it is a final decision on your case. You do not have an automatic right to appeal the jury’s verdict if you do not like their decision. In order to have grounds for appeal, it must be because the judge made a mistake in one of his or her rulings.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF A JURY TRIAL?

There is no guarantee as to what a jury will do with your case. You hope that you get 12 impartial jurors based on the questions that are asked during jury selection, but in reality, every juror brings with them experiences that causes some inherent partiality. The plaintiff has to prove his or her case “by the greater weight of the evidence” but the defendant will do everything within his or her power to discredit the plaintiff’s evidence.

The plaintiff also faces the uphill battle of not being able to disclose everything to the jury. For example, the jury is not allowed to know that there is automobile insurance coverage available. The jury will not be told that the defendant has automobile insurance that will pay for any verdict that the jury renders. This can cause a potential problem for the plaintiff if the jury, during their deliberations, calculates their verdict based on what they believe the defendant can pay out of their pocket versus understanding that insurance is available to pay the verdict.

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