Once all possible bars to trial have been surpassed, and all attempts to settle the case have been exhausted, your trial will finally commence. The first question is whether you will have a trial to a judge, often referred to as a “bench trial” or a jury trial. This decision is made months before your trial date is set. The decision between bench and jury trial can be based on several factors, including the nature of your claim, the amount of your damages, which judge you were assigned to try the case and, at times, and the preferences of the lawyers. If the decision is based on the judge assigned, understand this is not a decision the judge gets to make. Rather, as with other human beings, judges come in all shapes, sizes, and persuasions. Some judges are known to be more generous to plaintiffs, and some judges have a reputation to favor the defense. As such, your attorney may have made a tactical decision to either waive or not waive the jury.
Rules that Will Govern Your Trial
Understand, in every personal injury case in the state of Georgia, there are several sets of rules that apply. These rules include the Georgia Rules of Civil Procedure, the Georgia Rules of Evidence, the local rules of court, and the judge’s personal rules. And not necessarily in that order. The Georgia Rules of Civil Procedure govern things such as what damages you are allowed to claim (or not claim), which party goes first, and how many people will sit on a jury. The Georgia Rules of Evidence govern things such as what is hearsay, what exceptions exist to the hearsay rules, limitations on expert testimony, and what foundation must be made before an exhibit can be introduced into evidence. Local rules of court may include things such as acceptable attire. The judge’s personal rules will vary. It cannot be said enough, “Judges are people.” Like everyone else, they have preferences. Some judges, for example, prefer that lawyers stand when addressing witnesses. Other judges do not mind if the lawyers stay seated while taking testimony. Some judges prefer that opening statements and closing arguments take place behind a podium. Other judges allow the attorneys to walk about the courtroom while making their opening statement or closing argument.
When You Have a Jury Trial
Before your jury trial can commence, a jury must be selected. Jury selection can vary based on a number of factors – but by and large you can expect the following questions:
Jurors will be asked where they live, what they do for a living, who they share their home with. Jurors will be asked if they know any of the witnesses, the lawyers, the judge, or anyone else in the courtroom, including the court reporter, the clerk, and the judge. Jurors are also asked if they have any criminal convictions, or if they have been seated as a juror before. If they have sat as a juror in a previous case, they may be questioned about whether the case was criminal or civil in nature. Finally, jurors will be asked if they have any other reason they could not serve on a jury.
The questions above are fairly standard questions that are asked in every case. Depending on the local rules and the judge’s preferences, as well as each lawyer’s individual style, other questions may be asked. These could include questions about whether they, or a loved one, has ever been injured. They may be asked whether they or a loved one has any ties to XYZ Insurance Company.
Once the questioning is complete, each side has the opportunity to strike a limited number of potential jurors from the list. Those that remain will be your jury.
Whether you try your case to a jury or to a judge, the trial will commence with opening statements. Contrary to what you may have seen on television, opening statements are not supposed to be arguments. Rather, they are supposed to provide a roadmap, detailing what each lawyer expects the testimony to be, and how that fits with their theory. Your lawyer will, of course, be highlighting facts they believe will establish the defendant is at fault. The lawyer for the other side may argue that their client is not at all at fault. Alternatively, they may acknowledge some fault, but argue that you contributed to your injuries and are more responsible for the injuries and therefore should not recover. Finally, they may argue that you are less than 50 percent responsible but still somewhat responsible, to limit the damages you can collect.
Testimony will be taken from all witnesses. While testimony is being taken from witnesses other than you, you will be seated next to your attorney. You may rest assured that your attorney is well versed in the facts of your case. There is no need to whisper in your attorney’s ear, “That is not true!” when you hear what you believe to be a misstatement of fact. Your attorney has carefully prepared and will address any apparent misstatements as time allows. Understand that when a witness takes the stand, they first provide direct testimony, which is subject to cross examination. Then the first attorney can re-direct, and the second attorney can re-cross. This will go on until all issues are addressed.
Once all testimony has been taken and all exhibits admitted, the case goes to closing arguments. Unlike openings, closings are, in fact, arguments. The lawyers take the evidence that supports their arguments and presents this to the trier of fact.
If you have a jury trial, the jury will deliberate until they reach a verdict. With a bench trial, the court may rule from the bench, or the court may take the case under consideration and rule at a later time. In either event, your attorney will let you know as soon as they hear of the decision.
What to Do if You Are Injured
If you have a personal injury case, contact the skilled Atlanta personal injury attorneys at Bader Law Firm, LLC for a free consultation.