Many times the first time one of my client’s injured in an automobile collision considers what will happen at trial is when we are in final trial preparation. Obviously, we have tried all that I can to get my client’s to think about trial, but it is just not real to many people until your about to have to pick a jury the next week. As a review, by the time you get to trial almost every client will have tried to settle or resolve the case pre-suit, answered written discovery about the case, had their deposition taken about their injuries and the effect of their injury on their lives, tried to settle the case at a court ordered mediation where a neutral mediator tries to assist in the settlement of the case, reviewed their own doctor’s deposition about their injury and finally met with their own attorney several times to get ready for trial. One of my favorite mediators (mediators are most often attorneys who have been trained in alternative dispute resolution to help resolve the case) likes to say that although he has often found attorneys that get excited about trying cases, he has never seen a client that looked at his/her lawyer after the trial and wanted to pay them to do it all over again as it was so fun. Trial: the great equalizer. At trial you will pick a jury and tell that jury about your injury, who caused it and why and then ask that jury to make you whole for your injuries. Complex evidence rules and strange procedures will be used… so what’s actually going on? In North Carolina, before you ever come into the courtroom, your attorney has prepared a pre-trial agreement for the defense attorney and the judge. This agreement is what the parties agree upon (stipulate) and what the parties argue about or disagree. In addition almost every time there has been motions heard about what evidence will and will not be allowed in by the judge. Often what will be allowed or not allowed in will be critical to what questions and witnesses your attorney can use or call. Always find out what happened in these conferences before you begin the trial. Once you arrive the judge will call the case, and put the first twelve jurors in the “box” or the jury seating area. Often, depending on the judge, a few questions will be asked from the bench or perhaps the judge will tell the jury a little about what the case is about before turning the questioning over to your lawyer. As you have the burden of proof the judge will allow the Plaintiff to go first in voire dire or jury selection. Each side has eight (8) challenges for any reason. The questioning goes back and forth between the sides until the jury is selected. After the jury is selected and impaneled (sworn to do their job as jurors) both attorneys will give their opening statement or forecast of the evidence in the case. It is the first time the jury will actually hear what both attorneys believe the evidence will demonstrate as to damages and liability (whose at fault). The attorneys job is for both to give as close as possible to an argument as to what the jury should do without actually causing an objection from the other side for arguing. After opening statement, evidence will be given. As the client in a personal injury case, it is your one chance to tell your side of the story. You’ve given your opinion numerous times about specific questions, but this is the first opportunity to actually tell the jury your story. The difficult part is telling your story within the evidence rules. You must listen to your attorney about how to testify. Failure to follow your attorney’s instructions will always result in a frustrating experience trying to tell your story. After all the testimony has been given, the defense (insurance company lawyer) will put on evidence. In North Carolina never be surprised if the defense fails to put on any evidence. If the insurance company lawyer doesn’t put on any evidence they get to give the last argument to the jury… in North Carolina that is often worth its weight in Gold. After all the evidence has been presented, the parties meet privately with the judge outside of the hearing of the jury to discuss what instructions will be given the jury. The jury instructions determine not just what the jury will be told to do, but what will be presented to the jury for them to determine in their final deliberations. This is where the judge and the attorneys argue about such important items as future damages vs present damages vs past damages, same for medicals, permanency, scarring, etc. After the instruction conference both attorneys will have an opportunity to give their final argument to the jury. The final argument is the last opportunity for the attorneys to discuss their interpretation of the evidence to the jury. The judge will then instruct the jury on the law and send them out to deliberate. When the jury returns, there will be an answer to the question as to what that case is worth.
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