Step 5: Time for Trial
This week we will be focusing on the trial of a lawsuit
We’ve made it to the trial, sounds exciting right? Trials can be exiting and are among the first thing many people picture when they think about a civil action; the reality is that only about 5% to 10% of lawsuits end up at trail. This is not because the majority of cases lack merit, but instead because the legal system is designed to resolve issues before trial. For this reason, the vast majority of cases are settled at an earlier stage or are dealt with in one of the proceedings we have discussed in previous weeks (i.e. Summary Judgment). One reason for this is that in most cases getting to trial takes time, often years.
Another common misconception is that trials are held in front of a judge and a jury. While juries remain a fixture in criminal trials, given the very different issues at play in civil actions, it is increasingly rare for civil trials to include a jury. Instead the majority of civil trials are heard by a judge alone. Trials involve multiple steps and phases designed to permit parties to present their issues and arguments. This includes allowing the opposing party to challenge these points and test the strength of the arguments. The following is an overview of such steps in order of when they generally occur at trial:
Opening Statements: Lawyers for the parties will present opening statements which outline the reasons for the civil action. This sets the stage for what will be presented by the parties. These statements will explain the issues to be tried and explain the position of the parties with respect to these issues. Depending on the complexity of the issues in a lawsuit, the lengths of opening statements can vary, sometimes lasting more than one day.
Examination of Witnesses: After opening statements, the lawyers for each party will call witnesses to provide evidence in support of their argument(s) in the case. Such witnesses can be persons who have knowledge about the issues or experts who have been retained to offer their expertise in support of a party’s position on the issues. There are strict rules governing the examination of witnesses, limiting and restricting the types of questions that a lawyer can ask. For example, when a lawyer is examining their own witness for the first time they cannot ask questions that suggest the answers, known as leading questions. The reason for these restrictions is to ensure witnesses provide truthful and accurate evidence.
Inclusion of Documentary Evidence: In addition to testimony from witnesses, certain documentary evidence will be produced to lend support to a party’s arguments. As mentioned in our discussion on the Discovery of Documents, these documents will have already been disclosed to the opposing party and their lawyers, as the goal is to prevent surprises at trial.
Closing Statements: Once the evidence has been presented, as with opening statements, each party will give a closing statement. This is the last chance before a decision will be rendered for parties to advocate their stance on the issues, now with the added benefit of referencing testimony and evidence which has been presented in the trial to bolster their arguments.
Once all of the evidence has been heard and the lawyers have finished their closings, the judge (and in some cases juries) will take time to assess everything presented at the trial, come to a decision on the issues, and prepare their final judgement. Next week we will delve into what happens when that judgment is rendered, and the possibility of an appeal.
If you would like to discuss a potential civil action, our team of experienced litigators can help. Contact us online for a free legal consultation or call 705-526-1471 to speak directly with one of our lawyers