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What to Expect If Your California Personal Injury Case Goes to Trial

Types of Trials

what happens when your personal injury case goes to court

We’ve all seen trials on TV. Maybe you’ve watched footage of a real-life televised case, or love fictional legal procedurals like Law & Order. However, the process looks and feels different when you are part of a trial.

Walking into a courtroom for your case, even as the plaintiff, can be extremely daunting. Suddenly, it is not just entertainment; there’s a lot on the line.

The unknown is one of the most overwhelming elements of a trial for many people. Most people don’t know what to expect, where to sit, or the basic rules of the court. But we aim to remove the mystery and make the entire process more manageable.

Learn what to expect if your California personal injury case goes to trial. Many different types of trials fall under separate categories. The trial process will depend on the type of case, as well as where it is held.

Criminal Trials: Many of the most famous trials that you see in the news are criminal trials, often involving serious crimes such as murder or manslaughter. In criminal cases, the police will make an arrest. Then, a state or federal prosecutor will look at the evidence and decide whether to prosecute. In a criminal trial, the defendant faces punishments such as prison time and fines.

Civil Trials: A civil case involves a disagreement between two or more people or entities. For example, one individual could file a civil lawsuit against another person over a car accident or wrongful death. In the event that a plaintiff prevails in a civil trial, the defendant will be required to make a court-ordered payment. The only form of punishment is monetary.

Family Court Trials: The term ‘family law’ casts a wide net, covering legal cases involving family relationships. Family court trials can involve disputed divorce proceedings and settlements, custody battles, adoption proceedings, and domestic violence restraining orders, among other areas of the law.

Traffic Cases: Traffic court deals with traffic violations, such as speeding tickets and parking fines. It could result in a civil infraction or a misdemeanor. More serious traffic offenses involving accidents and injuries will likely go through higher-level courts.

A Focus on Personal Injury Trials

At Bisnar Chase, we are California personal injury attorneys. We ONLY handle plaintiff injury claims and employment cases.

That means that all of our clients are people who have suffered physical injuries due to the negligence of another person or entity (such as a business or manufacturer). Most of the information from this point on will be focused specifically on personal injury trials (civil trials), as these are the trials that our team specializes in.

Why Do Some Personal Injury Cases Go to Trial?

The majority of personal injury cases are settled before getting close to trial. In many instances, a settlement is reached with the at-fault party’s insurance company before we even have to file a lawsuit.

However, some scenarios commonly lead to a case progressing to trial. These include:

  • Either side – the defense or the plaintiff – believes they have an overwhelming case and will win. If one side thinks it has overwhelming evidence and will be successful, it might dig its heels in and push for a trial. By doing so, the plaintiff could maximize their payout, while the defense could escape paying out a needless settlement.
  • There are disagreements over the critical facts of the accident or case. If the at-fault party refuses to admit any fault or fundamentally disagrees with our arguments, a jury may be required to reach a decision.
  • The two sides are too far apart in their demands to reach a settlement. In some cases, the insurance company or defense team for the at-fault party will deem our demands too high. In many instances, a compromise can be reached. But when the gap is too large to meet through compromise, the defense might take its chances at trial. However, this can be self-defeating, as a trial could end up costing them more.

Deciding to push for a trial can be a balancing act. You should never accept far less than your case is worth just because you fear a trial. But you also cannot be cavalier. A trial can be lost, and you need to have a solid case to consider that route. It is important that you work with a skilled legal team that will use their experience to choose the right path for your case.

How Does an Injury Case End Up at Trial?

Most cases start with a pre-litigation phase. If this is successful, it avoids a trial altogether. However, the steps below outline how a case will usually progress up until the start of a trial.

1. We Try to Negotiate:

Pre-litigation negotiations come first. But if that doesn’t work – if the other side will not negotiate or agree to a fair amount – your lawyers will prepare a lawsuit and file it with the courts.

2. The Lawsuit is Filed:

The lawsuit is filed and processed. Next, the defendant – whether they are an individual, a company, or an entity – is served with the lawsuit. This means that the official paperwork notification is handed to them in person.

3. Discovery Process:

Discovery is the exchange of information between the two sides. This is used to establish the facts of the case. Two key stages in discovery are Interrogatory and Depositions.

4. Interrogatory:

The plaintiff will receive a list of questions from the defense, and we will send a list of questions to the defendant. Each side must answer these questions honestly. These answers are used to define the claim, the defense, and the facts of the case.

5. Deposition:

A deposition is similar in scope to an interrogatory but involves questions being asked orally. The answers are often given under oath and recorded. They can be used later in court. It can be used to establish the facts and provide testimony outside of the courtroom setting.

6. Medical Examinations:

By the time a case reaches trial, you will have conducted medical treatment with your own doctor or with a medical professional suggested by the law firm representing you. Before trial, the defense team has the right to have you examined by its doctor of choice. This is common when the severity of a victim’s injuries is disputed.

7. There May Be an Arbitration Process:

Arbitration involves a neutral party reviewing the evidence and offering a resolution. If either side rejects this resolution, the case will proceed to trial.

8. There May be a Final Settlement Conference:

This gives the two sides a final opportunity to negotiate a settlement before the trial starts.

9. The Trial Begins.

If no settlement or resolution is reached, the case will progress to trial.

The Courtroom Layout

When you first step into a courtroom, it can be very intimidating. But with our guide to the standard courtroom layout for a personal injury trial, you will at least know who and where everyone is.

The courtroom layout will vary slightly based on the size and configuration of the courthouse. But the image below shows a normal courtroom layout.

A typical courtroom layout for a personal injury trial.

Most people enter the court through a door at the back. On the far side of the court from the entrance, at the very front of the court, will be the judge’s bench. The judge will sit behind this bench during proceedings. They will have their own door through which to enter the court, usually positioned on the wall behind their bench, connecting the court to their private chambers.

The clerk and court reporter will usually be seated immediately in front of the judge’s bench. To one side of the judge will be the witness stand, where witnesses sit while giving testimony and facing cross-examination. Each of these people will be positioned to face out toward everyone else in the court.

Facing the Judge’s Bench

A jury box will be positioned against the wall on the left or right of the room – usually on the same side as the witness stand so that the jurors can see and hear everything important.

There will be two separate tables facing the judge. The table on the right is for the plaintiff’s lawyers, while the table on the left is for the defense attorneys. The plaintiff and defendant may sit with their legal team, at a table behind them, or in the public gallery, depending on the size and space inside the court. Ask your attorney, and they will guide you on where to sit.

A lectern may be set up facing the jury, allowing the lawyers to stand and make their arguments directly to the jurors. The court is also likely to be fitted with several large screens. They must be easily visible to the jury and are used by attorneys to make their presentations.

Behind the attorney tables will be a rail running across the entire width of the room. This rail separates the active area of the court from the public gallery. Behind the rail, there will be seating used by members of the public and friends or family members. The media may have a dedicated space, or they may be set up in the public gallery, depending on the court.

Who Will Be In The Court?

The following are all parties that you might expect to see in the court during a trial:

Court Officials and Staff

Judge: The judge is the head of proceedings within the courtroom. They are impartial overseers of proceedings, like a referee. A judge will decide what evidence can be shown, rule on points of law, and provide instructions to the jury.

Clerk: The clerk is responsible for running the clerical side of the court. They keep the court’s schedule, keep track of decisions and orders made by the judge during trial, keep and organize related case files, receive and execute payments, and keep financial records. They may also help the judge with research and preparation.

Bailiff: A bailiff is a court official. They mainly handle court security but also sometimes carry out errands for the judge and clerk, as well as passing materials from lawyers to the judge as an intermediary. Bailiffs are always in place at criminal trials. Whether they are present at a civil trial depends on the court.

Court Reporter: The court reporter sits close to the judge’s bench and records every word said during a trial. They use special stenotype machines to type out what the judge, lawyers, and witnesses say. Having a verbatim recording of trial proceedings is very important. It ensures the accuracy of events and can be used as an official record.

Technical Support: Courts are pretty high-tech these days, with most legal teams preparing digital presentations, including slideshows and videos. A court might have a dedicated technical support professional on hand to ensure that there are no difficulties.

Trial Participants

Jury: Technically somewhere between trial participants and honorary court officials, the jury is made up of volunteers doing their civic duty for the court. The jury will be selected from a pool of people who live in the local area and have been called up for jury duty. It is usually made up of 12 people with two alternates. The alternates are present throughout the trial; if any of the jurors need to be excused, the alternates can step in and take their place without any interruptions to the trial.

Plaintiff and Defense Legal Teams: The legal teams include anyone working with or on behalf of the plaintiff or defendant involved in the trial. This could include attorneys, paralegals, and any other relevant parties.

Witnesses and Experts: In making their case, both sides will present a series of witnesses to provide testimony that supports their case. This could include anyone from eyewitnesses to an accident to medical experts who treated the victim and can speak to their injuries. In many cases, witnesses will only be in court on the day they are due to be called to testify.

Onlookers and Coverage

Media: Media members might be present at a trial if it involves high-profile individuals or entities, or if the case is of interest. Sometimes, the media is obvious. If the trial is recorded for video content, you will see a cameraman set up with a camera, tripod, and laptop on one side of the court. In other cases, a reporter with a notebook or laptop might be sat in the public gallery to record proceedings.

Public: Most courts are open to the public. Within the public gallery, you might find friends and family of the plaintiff or defendant, people with a vested interest in the trial, or just people who are curious and want to watch.

The Trial Process

A huge amount of preparation goes into a trial. From the moment a lawsuit is filed through the case-building process, it can take months or years for a trial date to arrive, depending on the circumstances of the case.

The guide below will walk you through the most common steps in the trial process in a personal injury case. The best personal injury trial lawyers will tell you what to expect at every stage.

1. Jury Selection.

A jury is selected from a group of prospective jurors who have been called up to serve their civic duty. The prospective jurors are first asked to swear that they will answer questions truthfully.

The legal teams for the plaintiff and defense will then ask questions designed to weed out anyone with potential biases that could impact their case. Their goal is to narrow the pool down to 12 jurors and two alternates who are suitable for the case. Both sides see the jury selection process as an important step in winning the trial.

2. Opening Statements

Once the jury has been confirmed, the trial can get underway. The first step is the opening statements. At this point, the lead attorney for the plaintiff will make a statement directly to the jury. This is the first opportunity to lay out your case to the jury.

The attorney will look to create a clear picture in the jurors’ minds, providing a concise and compelling overarching account that sets the groundwork for their case. Once the plaintiff’s lawyer has concluded their opening statement, it is the defense lawyer’s turn. Each opening statement will usually take upward of about 30 minutes. They will include the facts and relevant laws and should not be interrupted by the opposing side.

3. The Case for the Plaintiff

After both sides give their opening statement, the plaintiff’s legal team will make its case. Your lawyers will present witnesses who will take the stand. Your attorney will basically interview the witness in front of the court, allowing them to relay their knowledge to the jury by answering questions about the case.

The legal team representing you will submit evidence supporting your case, showing that you were injured and the defendant was at fault. Common evidence includes photos, videos, CCTV footage, medical records, police reports, and expert testimonies.

Once your lawyer has asked about everything they want the witness to discuss, the opposing side can conduct a cross-examination if they wish. This is when they question the other side’s witness and attempt to throw doubt over their testimony.

When the plaintiff’s side has introduced all of its experts, witnesses, and evidence, it will rest its case.

4. The Case for the Defense

When the plaintiff’s case rests, the defense will have its turn. The defense lawyers will call their own witnesses to challenge the arguments made by the plaintiff and offer an alternative view. As in the previous step, the plaintiff’s lawyers will have the chance to cross-examine any defense witnesses.

The defense will rest its case once they have laid out its alternative view of the facts through evidence and witness testimonies.

5. Closing Arguments

At the conclusion of the defense case, both sides get an opportunity to give closing remarks. This follows a similar format to the opening statements; the plaintiff’s side goes first, followed by the defense, and both speeches should be uninterrupted.

The closing arguments are the last opportunity for a lawyer to talk to the jury and tell jurors why they should rule in their favor. They can summarize the case, highlight key points and pieces of evidence, respond to critical points in their opposition’s arguments, and clarify any issues they feel to be particularly important or unclear. Each side’s closing arguments might take up to an hour.

6. Judge’s Instructions

At this point, the lawyers have done everything they can. The case is now in the hands of the jury, though it should be noted that a settlement can be reached at any point, right up until the moment the jury delivers its verdict.

The judge will provide the jury with instructions. These can include a reminder of their duties, guidance on the decision-making process, how to carry out deliberations, and what majority is needed. The jury then leaves the courtroom and is taken into a private room to deliberate.

7. Jury Deliberations

The jury might make its decision very quickly, or it might take days or weeks. It all depends on the complexity of the case, the amount of evidence to sort through, and how the discussions progress. In a civil trial, the jury must only reach a majority decision. That is in contrast to a criminal trial, where the jury needs to be unanimous. For example, in a personal injury trial, a jury majority of 9-3 is usually enough to make a decision.

When the jury reaches its decision, a court official will call both legal teams and inform them that they must return to the courtroom.

8. The Verdict

With all the relevant parties gathered back into the courtroom, the jury delivers its verdict to the judge, who will read it to the court. It will include the decision and a dollar amount for the compensation awarded if the plaintiff is successful.

At this point, the jury is dismissed, and the trial is over. However, appeals could still be lodged at a later date.

Will There Be an Appeal?

The trial is over, and the court has given a verdict. That might be the end of your case…but you might also have to go through an appeals process. But what does that mean, who can appeal, and what does the process involve?

What is an Appeal After Trial?

After a personal injury trial, an appeal can be filed by either the plaintiff or the defense if they have legal grounds to disagree with the court’s decision in the original trial. When an appeal is lodged, a higher court re-examines the case – usually the California District Courts of Appeal.

In criminal cases, only the defense can appeal. But in civil injury trials, the option is open to both sides. For example, a plaintiff could appeal against the outcome of the case. They could also file an appeal if they won the trial, but the jury awarded much less than expected in compensation.

The defense will almost always appeal when a plaintiff wins a significant monetary award at trial. That’s because they have little to lose at that point and may get the decision reversed or the compensation reduced.

In most cases, you cannot file an appeal just because you lost. The appellant must come up with a legal reason to appeal, such as a misrepresentation of facts or a material error in the original trial.

Injury Case Appeal Procedure

Don’t worry; even if an appeal is filed, you will not have to go through the entire trial process all over again.

The side that is appealing (the appellant/petitioner) will submit a written brief, which is a short rundown of their legal arguments for having the verdict changed. The opposing side (the respondent) will submit a response arguing against any change.

In some cases, the judges will make a ruling based solely on the written submissions. But the court or the attorneys can request the opportunity to make oral arguments in a court session. When that happens, the attorneys will give presentations of no longer than 30 minutes directly to the appeals judges in court.

The judges will discuss the arguments. They can choose to dismiss the appeal, uphold the lower court verdict, or reverse the original judgment.

If an appeal is successful, what happens next will depend on the facts of the case, the reason for the reversal, and the decision of the judges. Ask your attorney for guidance specific to your case.

It is important to note that any compensation awarded in the original trial will not be paid out until the appeals process has been completed.

How Long Will the Trial Last?

Resolving an injury case can be a lengthy process. Usually, the time it takes to wait for a court date and prepare for a trial far exceeds the length of the trial itself.

But every trial is different. If the case is relatively straightforward, the trial might last for a few days, up to a week. However, some trials can last for weeks or months. It will depend on how many witnesses and how much evidence each side presents.

If the facts are disputed, it might also take the jury a fair amount of time to discuss and come to a consensus. However, this process is easier in a civil trial than in criminal proceedings since civil trial juries do not need to be unanimous. Any subsequent appeals will also stretch the process.

Did you know…?

Officially, the longest trial in U.S. history is the McMartin Preschool Abuse trial – a criminal trial in the 1980s. In this case, several members of staff at a preschool were accused of abusing youngsters. A preliminary hearing started in August 1984 and lasted over a year, after which some of the charges were dropped. Jury selection then took several weeks, and the trial itself did not start until July 1987. It took 30 months for the prosecution and defense to rest (in November 1989). The jury deliberated for ten weeks and could not come to a decision on one of the defendants. There was a retrial, but the second jury was also deadlocked. After several years, the saga ended in a mistrial with no convictions.

The example given above is an extreme case. Generally speaking, criminal trials take longer than civil trials. However, we have been involved in cases that have taken years to reach trial due to their complexity and the level of preparation required for a high-stakes trial.

To get a better feel for how long your trial will take, you need to speak to an experienced lawyer. They will base their estimate on the specifics of your lawsuit.

What Do We Need to Prove At Trial?

In personal injury cases in California, the burden of proof lies with the victim. As plaintiff lawyers, we assemble witnesses, experts, and evidence to prove that your complaint is valid. But what specific points must we demonstrate to win a personal injury trial?

The requirements might depend on the type of accident you were involved in. But in most cases, we have to prove to the jury that:

  • The victim suffered an injury (We must also show proof of any other damages we are claiming for).
  • The defendant’s actions were negligent, meaning that they were malicious, careless, or reckless, and violated their duty to act responsibly toward the victim.
  • Any negligent behavior directly caused the victim’s injuries, at least in part.

By proving these key points, a personal injury attorney will be successful at trial.

The Importance of the Jury

Juries are an integral part of trials in the United States. Using ordinary people to decide on criminal cases dates back to ancient Greece and was written into the United States Constitution in 1788. The right to a jury trial in a civil action was guaranteed under the Seventh Amendment.

A lot of people groan at the sight of a jury summons appearing in their mailbox. It can be a real hassle to take time off work or interrupt your normal schedule to fulfill your duty, especially when a trial drags on for an extended period of time. But we cannot stress enough how important the jury is in any kind of trial.

The jury safeguards against bias, protects against unfair prosecution, spreads power across a cross-section of society, and gives a voice to ordinary people.

The Pros and Cons of Going to Trial

It’s fair to say that there are pros and cons to taking your injury claim to trial. Many law firms try to avoid trials at all costs. They often choose to settle for less than the case is worth just to get it resolved before a lawsuit is filed.

It should be noted that Bisnar Chase is not one of those firms. We have a strong courtroom record and never fear heading to trial when that is the best option for our client. Our team has decades of experience, including taking on some of the biggest companies in the U.S.

But it is essential that everyone is fully informed of the risks and advantages associated with trials.

Why is Settling Safer Than Going to Trial?

  • Added Costs

Trials are expensive, and there is no getting around that. From court fees to hiring experts to testify at the trial, the costs add up. You do not have to pay any of those extra expenses out of pocket because Bisnar Chase advances all of the money necessary to win your case. But it will come from your compensation when a trial is won.

  • It Takes Longer

It will always take longer to resolve a claim through a trial than a settlement. This is because both sides will have to put a huge amount of time and preparation in to stand a chance of a favorable outcome. You are also at the mercy of the court’s calendar when it comes to arranging a date.

  • Unpredictability

When a case is resolved through a settlement, the result is guaranteed, and you are not leaving anything to chance. A jury can be a little less predictable. You never know for sure how they will respond to an argument. However, a skilled trial lawyer will still give you a great chance of success by building and presenting a powerful case.

It’s important to keep these issues in mind. However, there are also advantages to taking a case to trial.

Why are Trials Better for Plaintiffs Than Settling?

  • Greater Potential Compensation

In a trial, the jury has the power to award full damages. During pre-trial settlement negotiations, both sides will have to compromise to reach an agreement, so the final compensation might fall below the maximum value. In a trial, we ask the jury for full value. While trials cost more, you also have the ability to recover a far greater amount of money.

  • Break Deadlocks

Sometimes, cases become bogged down in disagreements. When the defense refuses to acknowledge fundamental elements of the case or meet at a fair settlement, the threat of trial is a powerful weapon. In some cases, the opposing side will see if the plaintiff will blink first, knowing that many plaintiff firms do not like to go to trial. But the attorneys at Bisnar Chase will not hesitate if that is the best option.

  • Sympathetic Jury

In some cases, the best thing you can do is put your case in front of a jury. It can be beneficial for the judgment to fall to ordinary people, especially in claims involving the negligence or careless actions of large companies and corporations.

Can a Case Still Be Settled After a Trial Starts?

Yes, a case can still be settled after a trial starts. In fact, a settlement can be agreed upon at any point, up until the moment the jury delivers its verdict.

Most settlements are secured before litigation starts. That way, you avoid the time, preparation, and costs associated with going to trial. However, that avenue is not always open, and any good lawyer needs to remain open to settlement discussions as a trial progresses.

Attorneys will often be able to get a good read on how a jury is reacting throughout the trial. If a defense lawyer does not like how a case is progressing, they may make a settlement offer mid-trial. When that happens, the plaintiffs have a choice. You might end up with more money if you push for a jury verdict. But you might also lose and end up with nothing.

In other cases, both sides might struggle to get a read on the jury and return to the negotiation table to see if a compromise can be reached.

It is important to remember that in a trial, nothing is certain. You never have to take a settlement offer that you don’t like. But being open to an advanced-stage settlement is important. If an offer is made, the plaintiff will probably be asked to make the final decision. Your attorneys will advise you based on their experience, legal knowledge, and read on the jury. But the final decision will be yours.

Criminal Trials vs. Civil Trials

We have pointed out several key procedural differences between criminal and civil trials over the course of this page.

The most important factor to remember is that criminal and civil trials are completely separate. Criminal trials are brought by the government and designed to punish people for breaking the law, carrying penalties such as prison time.

A civil trial is more personal, with one individual (or a group of people in the case of a class action) filing a lawsuit against another entity. In a civil trial, the penalty is purely financial. A defendant who is found to be negligent could be ordered to pay damages to the victim.

A jury usually decides both trial types. However, each has a different burden of proof. In criminal cases, the prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury must be unanimous.

In civil cases, the plaintiff must show that their version of accounts is more likely than not. In these cases, a majority decision is often allowed. The threshold depends on the case; the judge provides instructions to the jury on the level of agreement that must be reached in each case.

A Famous Example of Criminal v. Civil Trials

Perhaps the most famous example of the criminal trial v. civil trial differences involved O.J. Simpson.

The actor and former footballer was charged with murder by prosecutors and faced a criminal trial. After a blockbuster trial, he was found not guilty in a controversial decision. That meant that he escaped a prison sentence.

However, the families of the murdered victims also filed a civil lawsuit for wrongful death against Simpson. The civil trial took place later in front of a different jury and with the lower burden of proof required in civil court.

In the civil case, the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs. Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million to the families of the victims.

The two trials of O.J. Simpson are extremely helpful in laying out the differences between the criminal and civil trial procedures and punishments.

Choosing the Right Trial Attorney

For anyone with a personal injury case in California, the most important step you can take after your accident is to hire the right lawyer. We have shown that there are pros and cons to going to trial. That means that you need a law firm on your side with the experience and wisdom to know when you should push for a trial.

  • The best law firms offer expert guidance and take your feelings into account. This is a partnership; going to trial should be a mutual decision.
  • Your law firm needs the resources to go to trial. That includes the financial power to advance the costs required to win, as well as the personnel available to give your case the time and respect it deserves.
  • Top attorneys are open-minded to both trials and settlements. They weigh the merits of each option to choose the best path and pivot as the circumstances evolve.

At Bisnar Chase, we have the skill and experience to make the right decision for you. Unlike many firms, we are ready to go to court when a case calls for it. We have a long list of trial success stories, winning millions of dollars for our clients through powerful and persuasive courtroom presentations.

Preparation is Key

Our attorneys spend a huge amount of time and resources preparing for trials. Our pre-trial prep includes taking depositions, coordinating medical treatments, conducting investigations, lining up expert witnesses and preparing testimonies, compiling comprehensive evidence, and planning cross-examinations.

We leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparing for trial. We don’t want to leave anything to chance, but there are always surprises. Our attorneys can think on their feet – a vital skill to ensure they take every opportunity during your trial.

Our team comprises dedicated professionals and seasoned trial lawyers. We put in the work, meticulously preparing arguments and witnesses for the best results. With a 99% success rate and more than $850 million won for our clients, you can trust Bisnar Chase with your case.

Contact us now for a free consultation. Call (800) 561-4887, use our live chat, or send us an email.