ANATOMY OF A LAWSUIT – Part V
If pre-trial negotiations, mediation or non-binding arbitration efforts were not successful in resolving the claims, then it is time for trial. Aside from some pretrial motions that will vary depending on whether the trial is to a judge or a jury, it is time to present evidence. Different types of claims have different burdens of proof. It is the Plaintiff’s obligation to prove his case. In most civil cases, for instance a motor vehicle accident case, the burden is a preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, the Plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was responsible for the accident and therefore responsible to pay for his damages.
The usual procedure is that the Plaintiff will make an opening statement, followed by the defendant’s opening statement, with each party laying out the facts they intend to prove and explaining why they should win the case. After the opening statements, the plaintiff will present his or her witnesses and evidence in a question and answer format through the plaintiff and the witnesses who will support the plaintiff’s claims. Each witness is questioned by the attorneys for all parties, first on direct examination, and then on cross examination. Once the Plaintiff has presented all of the witnesses and evidence that he or she wants to rely on, and after the defendant has had the opportunity to conduct a cross examination of each witness, the plaintiff will rest, which is an indication to the court that the plaintiff has completed presenting his or her case. Depending on whether the defendant believes the plaintiff has met the burden of proving his or her case, the defendant can seek the dismissal of the claims on the grounds that the plaintiff has not satisfied the burden of proof to support the claims. If the court agrees with the defendant, the claim is dismissed summarily, and judgment will enter in defendant’s favor.
As a normal practice, judges are not inclined to summarily dismiss a claim unless the plaintiff has clearly failed to meet the burden of proof. If the claim is not dismissed, the defendant can then present his or her own witnesses and evidence to dispute the claims of the plaintiff. Once the defendant concludes with its evidence and rests, and the plaintiff is afforded the opportunity to offer rebuttal evidence, the parties will also be given the opportunity to summarize their positions by each giving a closing statement.
If this trial is to a judge, the judge will close the evidence and issue a decision within 120 days. If it is to a jury, the judge will read a series of instructions to the jury which will advise the jury on what the law is that must be applied to the case based on the facts that they believe have been proven by the parties. The jury will then leave the court room, deliberate over the evidence and then render a verdict. After the verdict, the parties can file post trial motions and after considering the motions the judge will enter judgment, usually in accordance with the verdict of the jury and the matter will have reached the final stage of the trial.
Either party can appeal the judgment within 20 days, in which case enforcement will be stayed until the appeal is resolved. If the plaintiff prevails and is awarded money damages, and if the defendant is uninsured, the hard part begins: collecting the judgment.