Settling a car accident case is relatively simple. It starts when victims recognise the need for compensation and ends when all parties involved come to an agreement. The agreement doesn’t have to be in your favour either. You can receive compensation lower than its actual worth, or you can receive a settlement amount higher than you initially expected. A car accident lawyer typically does this for you.
A car accident case usually doesn’t go to trial, but if it does, you’re best off knowing how the process usually goes. But, before anything else, how does a car accident case go to trial?
How Can A Car Accident Case Go To Trial?
If you’ve been to a car accident before, whether as a witness, a victim, or even the one at fault, you should know how the process usually goes. The victim exchanges contact information with the at-fault party. They try to come to an agreement. When they do, the case ends, but what if they don’t? What if the at-fault party can’t possibly accept that their mistake led to the accident? What if the amount the victim’s asking for is too much for the at-fault driver?
When that happens, the case will go on trial. When it does, it’ll take longer for the victim to receive the compensation, and more parties will be involved in the case.
Involved Parties In A Car Accident Trial
Usually, in a car accident case, the involved parties include the victim, the at-fault party, and the accident attorney for each of the parties. However, when the case goes to trial, other parties will be involved. These include a judge and a jury, though only a judge will be present to render the verdict in some cases. To illustrate further, below is an overview of the involved parties and their respective roles in a car accident trial:
- Plaintiff: The plaintiff is the individual who filed the lawsuit and is usually the victim of the car accident seeking compensation from the at-fault party.
- Defendant: The defendant is the individual or the organisation sued by the plaintiff. In the case of a car accident case, the defendant is usually the at-fault party. If the at-fault party is insured, the insurance company would represent the defendant.
- Attorneys: Accident or personal injury attorneys are individuals who aim to help their side win the case. These individuals are also responsible for a lot of things, such as gathering evidence, objecting to arguments, and creating the necessary statements,
A car accident trial will almost always have two attorneys as the court will provide one if the plaintiff or the defendant can’t afford to hire a car accident lawyer.
- Judge: A judge will most certainly be in a court trial. Their role is to ensure that the verdict is given without bias as much as possible. In the case of a bench trial, the judge would be responsible for rendering a verdict.
- Jury: As previously said, some cases don’t involve a jury (bench trial), but if they do, the jurors would be the ones responsible for giving the verdict.
While the members of each party are almost always predetermined, the jury members aren’t. That’s why the court goes through the process of selecting jury members before anything else.
The selection of jury members, or what they call ‘voir dire,’ marks the beginning of a car accident trial. Voir dire mainly involves the judge and the lawyers or attorneys as they pick a few people from the audience to become a jury member. Although one can reject the assignment, they need a valid reason to do so. Otherwise, they can be penalised.
While the size of the jury may vary, there are usually 12 jurors in a car accident trial. When selecting jurors, the attorneys or the judge may ask a few questions to each individual.
The purpose of these questions is to ensure that people with prejudices and bias don’t become part of the trial. Furthermore, either attorney can appeal to the judge to reconsider making an individual a juror if any of them suspect that particular person to be prejudiced.
Upon selecting all 12 jurors, the judge will decide when to start the trial. Before the trial starts, both sides can prepare their evidence and statements to build up their arguments.
The opening statement provides both parties with the opportunity to set the stage for the trial. Because the plaintiff has the burden of proof or the obligation to prove the case, they usually go first when presenting the opening statement. An opening statement typically includes basic details such as how the accident happened, why the plaintiff filed the lawsuit, and the likes.
Another purpose of the opening statement is to brief the jurors of the scenario. Hence, the plaintiff’s attorney needs to make the opening statement as convincing as possible. It’s the first shot at presenting the situation clearly to those tasked to decide on the case later on.
After the plaintiff’s attorney presents the opening statement, the defendant would have the opportunity to explain their side of the story as well. The whole process usually goes on for about 20 minutes before the court proceeds to the presentation of evidence.
Presentation Of Evidence: Plaintiff
The presentation of evidence is the spotlight of a car accident trial. It’s when the attorneys can present the evidence that would support their claims. As usual, the plaintiff would be the first to present evidence to the court. There are several types of evidence one can present in court. These include the following:
- Testimony: Testimonies are usually the most convincing pieces of evidence in a car accident case. Hence, attorneys usually prioritise looking for people who might have witnessed the accident.
If there are individuals who can provide valuable testimonies, these individuals are compelled to attend court unless they have a valid reason not to. Otherwise, the court may issue a warrant of arrest for that particular individual.
- Documents: The plaintiff can also present various documents such as medical bills, records, and accident reports to support their claims.
- Photographs: Lastly, the plaintiff may show the jury any photographs that can further strengthen their argument. These include photos of injuries, property damage, and other relevant objects.
Once the plaintiff presents all the evidence, they will then rest the case. Resting a case indicates that the party has already shown all available evidence. It also signals the defendant’s turn to present evidence.
Presentation Of Evidence: Defendant
The presentation of evidence of the defendant follows the same format as that for the plaintiff. They show the jury pieces of evidence that prove the innocence of the defendant.
In some cases, the defendant’s attorney may also call upon witnesses to provide testimonies that contradict the plaintiff’s statements. For instance, if the plaintiff claims that the defendant drove through a red traffic light, the defendant may find a witness claiming that the traffic light was, indeed, green. This process is called cross-examination.
Cross-examination refers to the process of questioning the other party’s witnesses. This is afforded to both the plaintiff and the defendant. It’s the opportunity for both parties to discredit the witnesses and evidence presented by the other party.
Even if one side rests the case, it can still present new evidence if the judge permits. Hence, the presentation of evidence takes the most amount of time in a car accident trial. Nevertheless, once both sides have shown all their evidence, they would then proceed to the next stage—the closing argument.
When giving a closing argument, attorneys summarise all the evidence they’ve presented to encourage the jury to draw a verdict in favour of their respective side. In other words, the closing argument and the opening statement are similar in that they provide both sides with the opportunity to convince the jury. At that point, both sides no longer have to do anything but await the jury’s verdict.
Upon hearing the closing argument of both sides, the jury proceeds to a separate room where they’ll contemplate on what verdict to render in the court. While a jury deliberation has no time limit, the jury usually ends up with a verdict several hours after the presentation of closing arguments. In rarer cases, jury deliberations may last for a few days.
Jury deliberation must stay confidential. No other party, not even the judge, can witness how the jury made the verdict.
For a car accident case, jurors usually focus on the five elements of negligence when rendering a verdict:
- Duty: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant shouldn’t have caused them harm. This is usually a given in the case of a car accident.
- Breach of Duty: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant was negligent in any way.
- Cause in Fact: The plaintiff must prove that the violation made by the defendant is somehow related to the injury or damage suffered.
- Proximate Cause: The plaintiff must prove that the negligent act is directly linked to the injury or property damage.
- Harm: The plaintiff must prove that they suffered from the accident in any way.
If these elements are identified through the plaintiff’s evidence, the jury would most likely give a verdict in the plaintiff’s favour. Typically, to reach a conclusion, all members of the jury must render a unanimous verdict. Deliberation doesn’t end until such is reached. However, in the case of a car accident trial, the judge would inform the court beforehand how many would have to be on the same page to reach an agreement.
Take note that the jury would only be present in a jury trial. In the case of a bench trial, the judge would have complete control over the verdict, so there’ll be no jury. Also, the ruling won’t always be final, and either side can appeal to the judge within a specified period if not satisfied with the conclusion or the jury’s verdict.
Court Of Appeals
When the jury deliberation is finished, the judge reads the verdict to the court. If any side is dissatisfied with the conclusion, it can file an appeal with the Court of Appeals.
Most states allow individuals to file an appeal 30 to 60 days following the reading of the verdict. Once this time limit is reached, neither side can no longer file an appeal. With that said, even if the plaintiff wins the trial, they cannot force the defendant to pay the compensation until the 30- or 60-day time limit. Moreover, the plaintiff may face some difficulties collecting payment if the defendant isn’t insured.
If the defendant isn’t insured, the plaintiff would have to collect the payment directly from the defendant, which can be difficult if the compensation is relatively high. On the bright side, if the defendant doesn’t have the resources at the moment, the plaintiff can seek alternatives. For example, the plaintiff can chip away from the defendant’s salary until the total amount is paid for.
The plaintiff may also claim some of the defendant’s property. The plaintiff would have to go through another batch of paperwork and legal process either way in spite of winning the trial.
However, it would be a different story if the driver is insured. In that case, the insurance company would pay for the amount agreed upon during the trial. It can pay all at once or in instalments. If the insurance company refuses to pay, the plaintiff can take legal action against the organisation though such an event is quite unlikely.
Getting into a car accident can be devastating. You have to go through a process that you probably haven’t experienced in your lifetime. You’ll have to hire an accident attorney, file a lawsuit, gather evidence, and attend court. Even if you do win the case, there’s a chance the opposite party can file an appeal, which would further extend the process. The entire trial may even last for a year, which isn’t ideal for either party. Hence, it’d be best for both parties to settle the car accident case without involving the court.