If you are considering pursuing legal action in a personal injury case, it might be helpful to understand what happens in a courtroom, how the jury is selected and ultimately, how a verdict is reached.
As part of our Legal Education Series, our team of personal injury lawyers in Milwaukee wants to help you understand the legal system in Wisconsin and be prepared with the knowledge you need to navigate through any type of legal proceeding.
This article will explain the events of a jury trial, explaining each step to help you understand what to expect during every step of the trial process. Consider a free case evaluation to help you understand your legal rights.
Key Steps Before A Trial Begins
When a trial begins, there will already have been a great deal of work done on your case. Depositions, which are testimony taken under oath, were taken of the other side and any witnesses. Written questions will have been answered, under oath, by both sides. Doctors will have given their depositions on video. Motions, legal procedures over what evidence will be admitted or excluded, will have been decided.
What to Expect When You Appear for Trial
When you appear for trial, the judge will typically have a short conference, in the judge’s office, called chambers, with the lawyers. This is the equivalent of getting the representatives together and figuring out if there is anything that has come up that the judge needs to be aware of. The judge will also ask the parties about some basic details of the case, which the judge will use to introduce the case to the jury and also to do the initial questioning of the jury. The judge will also want some time estimates from the lawyers as to how long they expect to take with jury questioning and opening statements, so that the judge can plan breaks and lunches and daily adjournment. The judge may also put some time limits on the attorneys if the judge feels they are going too slow.
How Is A Trial Jury Selected?
Potential jurors will be brought into the court and seated according to a chart. The attorneys will be given a list of names that will allow them to match it up with the seating chart, so the attorneys know the names of the jurors in each seat. At this point, there probably are in excess of 20 jurors, allowing for some individuals who will need to be excused for family illness, vacations, or other hardships.
The judge will give a neutral description of what the case is about and then do some initial questioning of the jury. The judge will have each attorney introduce himself, his client, and the witnesses that are expected to be called. The judge will then ask if any potential juror knows the attorneys, the parties, or the witnesses and the judge will then follow up on any “yes” answers. The judge will ask if anyone has knowledge about the specific case or about the subject matter. If you have a juror that treats head injury patients as a nurse or PA, his or her experience doing that work would be very relevant if you have a case involving a head injury, for example.
During this process, if it becomes clear that a juror has some biases that prevents him or her from fairly considering the evidence, that juror can be dismissed “for cause.” When the judge and the attorneys are finished questioning the jurors, the attorneys proceed to strike jurors that they feel cannot be fair to their client. These are known as “peremptory challenges” and each side gets either 3 or 4 of these strikes, depending on the number of parties at trial and whether there are alternates. An attorney can remove these 3 or 4 from the panel for any reason except race, sex, or religion.
After the jury selection is complete, there is usually a short break where the attorneys set up for opening statements.
What To Expect when The Trial Begins
Trials are getting much more technology. There probably will be a projector and screen for exhibits and an iPad or computer that will display the exhibits. This technology takes a few minutes to set up and cannot be set up in advance because the jurors will be entering the courtroom from the rear, rather than the front, as they do when they are ultimately selected. So a clear path has to be kept for the jurors and there cannot be projectors and screens in the way.
Next comes opening statements. Each attorney gets an opportunity to address the jury to tell them what they expect the evidence to show. I have read reports of cases from decades ago where the opening statements would go on for hours. Times and culture have changed that. Opening statements in most cases may last a half hour per side or maybe 45 minutes. Attorneys need to get to the point in a clear and concise manner, and if they do not, it could indicate a bad start for their side.
What to Expect During Witness Testimony
After opening statements, the plaintiff (claimant) calls his or her witnesses to testify. There will be lay witnesses to establish the facts and usually expert opinions to establish damages or liability. The plaintiff will question each witness on direct examination and then the opponent will have an opportunity to cross examine each witness. Then the claimant attorney will have an opportunity to re-direct or clarify anything brought up on cross examination.
During this time, exhibits will be introduced establishing the plaintiff’s case. If a witness can establish that a document or photo is what it purports to be and the document or photo is relevant to an issue in the case, the exhibit will be received into evidence and can then be used by the attorney for pretty much anything. Sometimes, opponents try to keep certain exhibits out of evidence and establishing the authenticity of the exhibit and its relevance to the case can be a challenge.
After the plaintiff calls all his or her witnesses, the defendants call their witnesses and introduce their exhibits, to establish a defense. Unlike a criminal case where a defendant often does not testify and may not even call witnesses, defendants in civil cases always call witnesses and always testify.
After the defendant has called all of its witnesses, the plaintiff has a chance to call rebuttal witnesses who can address testimony or exhibits introduced during the defense part of the case.
Understanding Jury Instructions and Admissibility of Evidence
As the case gets closer to concluding, the judge will be working on the jury instructions and verdict form. In civil cases, jury instructions may last 30-45 minutes and that is where the judge reads the jury the applicable law. The attorneys argue about the content of those instructions, and whether an instruction is given depends on the evidence presented.
The judge will also be working on the form of the special verdict, which is the list of questions about fault and damages that the jury will be given to answer and decide the case. The form of that verdict again depends on the evidence that is introduced at trial. The judge will have a tentative form that is presented to the parties during the later parts of the trial, which can be changed quickly if needed after the evidence is closed.
There are a lot of things going on in the background that only the attorneys and the judge hear about, like disputes about the admissibility of evidence. The plaintiff may have had other injuries that are not relevant to the present issue and there may be a disagreement between the attorneys over relevancy of that evidence. Or a defendant may have made changes to his property or his procedures after the accident happened, and the admissibility of those changes may be in dispute. Sometimes things are not disclosed by an attorney before the trial that should have been disclosed, and the judge needs to decide what to do in that regard.
All of these things are going on during the trial and the judges want to keep the trials moving. It is rude to keep jurors waiting while these issues are decided and that is one of the reasons that on all but the simplest of cases, we have two lawyers at the trial. Two lawyers help keep things moving and the jurors and the judge appreciate it. I have seen defense lawyers who are unorganized and that causes delays. The jurors pick up on that and they get annoyed. From our client’s standpoint, we want to keep the jurors happy. One important way to do that is to value their time.
What To Expect During Closing Arguments
After the evidence is presented, the final special verdict form and jury instructions are prepared and finalized. Then, it is time for closing arguments. This is a chance for the attorneys to analyze the evidence and argue how it applies to the law, which will be given in the form of jury instructions. The attorneys can work in how they believe the evidence supports the finding they wish to see in the special verdict. Typically, the plaintiff goes first, then the defense, and then the plaintiff gets a brief rebuttal.
Somewhere in this time frame, the judge will read the jury the instructions that were chosen. Some judges do this before closing arguments, some judges after. But, the instruction reading may consume 30-45 minutes. The jury instructions give the jury the appropriate law for deciding issues of negligence and damages.
How A Verdict In a Personal Injury Case Is Reached
After the closing arguments and the reading of the instructions, a bailiff is sworn to keep watch over the jury deliberations. The jury is lead to their deliberation room, and the bailiff stays in the area, outside the deliberation room, ready for any inquiries from the jury.
Sometimes the jurors have questions about what the instructions mean or want to have some testimony read back. The foreperson of the jury puts the question or request in writing and presents it to the bailiff. The bailiff presents it to the judge, who reviews it and shares it with the attorneys. Then, a decision is made on how to answer or otherwise respond.
Judges have some discretion over how long to keep the jury deliberating. Some judges need to end the day, for budget purposes, at 5:00 p.m., so the clerks, bailiff, and courthouse personnel are not on overtime. Other judges keep the jury deliberating until the jury asks for a break or reaches a decision.
When the jurors make their final decision, a verdict is reached. When a verdict is reached, the jury will notify the bailiff, who will notify the judge, who will notify the attorneys. The verdict is kept by the foreperson, so the only thing we know is that they have reached a verdict, we do not know what it is. The attorneys and the parties come into the courtroom. The jury comes back to the jury box, and the verdict is presented from the foreperson to the bailiff, the bailiff to the clerk, and then the clerk to the judge. The judge reviews the verdict for completeness. If there is something inconsistent in the answers, which can sometimes happen, the judge will call the attorneys into chambers where it will be decided what happens. Sometimes the jury is sent back to deliberate on a question that they missed or an answer that is inconsistent.
When is A Verdict Considered Acceptable?
In a civil case in Wisconsin state courts, a verdict is acceptable if it is reached by 10 out of 12 jurors. In a criminal case, it needs to be unanimous. While only 10 jurors are required to agree on the verdict in a civil case, sometimes we will see 10 jurors that agree on liability questions and 10 different jurors who agree on damages. That could be a problem. There are many cases that deal with whether there is sufficient agreement by 10 out of 12 to support the verdict.
After the verdict is reached, the jury is discharged. Sometimes, lawyers contact the jurors to see how they decided the case and to learn from the jurors what the attorneys did right or wrong and to learn for future cases.
Then, the losing party has 20 days to file some legal papers, if they choose, requesting a new trial, or to change in the verdict. Although the judge has the power to order a new trial, this rarely happens. In order to appeal, the trial judge must be given the opportunity to correct any errors before asking an appellate court to do so. After the judge is given the opportunity to correct any errors, an appeal may be filed.
Interested in learning more about personal injury cases? Take a look at our entire educational series.
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