Personal injury cases involve four basic stages: pleadings, discovery, pre-trial motions, and trial.
The first stage of the case is the pleadings state.
The pleadings stage begins with the filing and service of the summons and complaint. The summons provides all named parties with notice of the lawsuit. It tells parties where and when the case will be heard. It also sets out the time limit within which the defendant must respond to the allegations made by the plaintiff. The Complaint provides an outline of the plaintiff’s case against the defendant. It outlines who the plaintiff is suing, why he is suing them, and what he is seeking in terms of damages. Once the summons and complaint are filed, copies must be delivered to all parties to the lawsuit. This is known as service of process.
Once the defendant is served, he typically responds by filing and serving a responsive document called an answer. The answer addresses every allegation made by the plaintiff in the complaint. It may also set forth various defenses to the allegations. These defenses, often referred to as “affirmative defenses”, are legal reasons why the defendant should not be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.
The next stage of the case is discovery.
Discovery refers to the pre-trial process where the plaintiff and defendant exchange information they plan to use in support of their claims and defenses at trial. Broadly speaking, discovery in personal injury cases can take one of four forms: (1) interrogatories, (2) request for admission, (3) requests for document production, and (4) depositions.
Interrogatories are written questions intended to extract information from a party about the case. The party’s answers to the interrogatories are provided in a written response given under oath.
Requests for admission are requests for a party to acknowledge or deny certain facts pertaining to the case. They carry with them penalties for not answering, for answering falsely, or even answering late. Requests for admission are generally only used to establish basic facts. Once a party responds, it eliminates she need for any further discovery on that issue.
Requests for production are demands for copies of documents and other items that the plaintiff intends to relay on to support his claims. This may include things such as accident reports, bills, receipts, invoices, inventory reports, business records, or anything else relevant to the case. Requests for production are used extensively in personal injury and medical malpractice cases to obtain copies of the plaintiff’s medical records.
Finally, depositions are in-person question and answer sessions involving attorney for one party and a witness for the other party. The transcript from the session is usually recorded by a court reporter who is present at the deposition table. Depending on the complexity of the case (as well as other factors such as the attorney’s questioning style, the witness’ temperament, language barriers, etc.), deposition may be very short in duration or take several days to complete. Sometimes the attorneys may agree to conduct the depositions of all parties on the same day, while in other situation the sessions may be broken into parts. Regardless of their particular format, depositions are usually the most important part of the discovery process because of how profoundly they can impact the relative strength of one’s case. For instance, if a personal injury plaintiff presents herself very well during a deposition and comes across as a strong, convincing witness with legitimate bodily injury claims, opposing counsel may be more inclined to settle rather than proceed to trial. On the other hand, if the deponent’s testimony is riddled with inconsistencies, vagueness, and unclear response, it may be a sign of a weak case.
The final phase of the case is trial.
In a trial, a jury or judge examines the evidence to decide whether the defendant should be held legally responsible for plaintiff’s injuries. The trial provides the plaintiff the opportunity to present his or her case in the hopes of obtaining a judgment against the defendant. A full personal injury trial consists of several phases, including jury selection (voir dire), opening statements, direct and cross-examination of witnesses, closing arguments, jury instructions, jury deliberations, and the verdict.
The majority of personal injury cases are settled long before trial.