If you have been hurt in a car accident, you may be anxious about what happens next. Will you have to go to court? Will you be forced to relive a traumatic experience before a room full of strangers?
The overwhelming majority of personal injury cases are settled before trial. According to some reports, just 5% of all car accident claims will go to trial. While this number is small, it still represents a real possibility of having to go to court — which can be stressful for anyone involved in a car accident case.
The idea of going to trial is daunting, especially if you have not been involved in the legal system before. In some situations, however, it is the only way that you will be able to get the compensation that you deserve for your losses. This is particularly true in situations where the insurance company refuses to make a fair settlement offer.
So what happens if your car accident case winds up in court? While the outcome will vary based on the facts of your case, there are certain steps that are the same for everyone. Read on to learn more about what you can expect if your Washington, D.C. car accident attorney takes your case to trial.
Step One: Pretrial Proceedings and Discovery
If you have filed a claim with an insurance company for damages that you suffered in a car accident, there is a good possibility that you will be able to achieve a settlement before filing a legal complaint. However, if the negotiations are unsuccessful, then your lawyer will likely file a lawsuit in state court. This must be done within a certain time period, known as the statute of limitations, or you won’t be able to file your claim.
Once the lawsuit is filed and the other side has a chance to file an answer, the next phase will begin: pretrial proceedings and discovery. The court will assign deadlines for various steps in the process, including discovery. This is the time period when the parties will exchange information about the case.
Discovery is often extensive and may consist of written questions (interrogatories) that must be answered under oath, requests for production of documents, requests for the other side to admit facts, and depositions. During a deposition, the parties and certain witnesses in a case will be questioned under oath in front of a court reporter. During discovery, each side gathers evidence to support their case; this may lead to a settlement after new information is discovered.
Discovery can take an extended period of time. While it is ongoing, the parties may file legal documents with the court (motions) asking them to do something. For example, your lawyer may ask the court to prevent the insurance company from introducing a particular kind of evidence at trial.
Throughout the pretrial process, the parties will typically continue to engage in settlement negotiations. A lawsuit may be settled once the parties have more information about the strengths and weaknesses of their case. However, if the parties cannot reach an agreement, then the case will go to trial.
Step Two: Trial
Most personal injury cases are decided by a jury rather than a judge. Before the trial begins, the parties will go through jury selection. Each side will have an opportunity to question potential jurors and exclude certain jurors.
Once the jury has been selected, the trial can begin. The trial will begin with opening statements, where each side has an opportunity to tell the jury what they hope to prove during the trial. The lawyer for the injured party (the plaintiff) goes first, followed by the attorney for the defendant.
After opening statements, each side will present their case, starting with the plaintiff. The plaintiff can put on evidence, including witnesses, documents, and other forms of proof. The attorney will question their witness in direct examination.
If you are the plaintiff in a personal injury case, you will usually testify about how the car accident happened as well as the injuries that you suffered. Other witnesses may be called to describe what they saw before and after the accident. Through these witnesses, your attorney may introduce evidence, such as your medical bills or a video of the accident.
After a witness testifies, the other lawyer will have a chance to “cross-examine” them. This involves trying to clarify things that the witness said with an eye towards proving their own case. If you are the plaintiff in a car accident case, your attorney will prepare you for both direct and cross-examination.
When the plaintiff has finished, then the defense will put on its case. The process is the same, including direct examination and cross-examination. When the defense rests, the plaintiff has a chance to rebut their case, such as by introducing a witness or new evidence to respond to anything new that the defense brought up in their case.
Finally, each side gives a closing argument, where an attorney summarizes the evidence presented at trial and asks the jury to find for their client. The plaintiff gives a closing argument first, followed by the defendant. The plaintiff will then be able to present a short rebuttal to the defendant’s argument.
The judge will then give the jury instructions on the legal framework for the issues that the jury must decide. For example, the judge in a car accident case will instruct the jury that the plaintiff only has to prove their case by a “preponderance of the evidence” (more likely than not) rather than the much higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal trials.
The jury will then deliberate, which involves discussing the case in private in an attempt to reach a verdict. Once the jurors agree on the verdict, it will be announced in court. In most jurisdictions, including Washington. D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, the verdict must be unanimous (all jurors agree).
Step Three: Appeal
If either side is unhappy with the verdict, there are two options for contesting it. First, you may be able to request a new trial. This is done through the court that heard the original case and is only available in limited circumstances, such as jury misconduct, a mistake of law, or new evidence.
Second, you can ask a higher court to review the trial. This is known as filing an appeal. It has to be done within a certain time period after the verdict was rendered.
When you file an appeal, you are asking the higher court to review your case and to overturn all or part of the verdict. This may be necessary for situations where the judge did not allow certain types of evidence to be considered, or where the jury ignored the instructions given by the judge. A skilled Washington, D.C. car accident attorney can advise you on whether there are any grounds for appeal in your case.
Importantly, the other side has a right to request a new trial or to file an appeal. If this occurs, you may not receive the money that you were granted by the jury until after the matter is resolved. But you usually will be able to collect interest at a rate set by state law for the time from the day of the official judgment to the date of eventual payment.
Hurt in a Car Accident? We Can Help.
There are few things scarier than being in a car accident. For some people, having to testify in open court about this traumatic event can be incredibly difficult. While most personal injury cases don’t go to trial, an experienced Washington, D.C. car accident attorney can help prepare you for court if necessary.
The lawyers of Patrick Malone & Associates have a proven track record of success, having recovered millions of dollars in settlement and at trial for our clients. We are aggressive advocates who will work hard to get our clients the compensation that they deserve. Call us today at 202-742-1500 or contact us online to learn more or to schedule a free initial consultation.