Understanding What Happens At The Trial Of A Personal Injury Or Wrongful Death Case

This Legal Guide will explain the various steps that take place during the trial of a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit in Tennessee.

1. Jury Selection

Most of the trials in personal injury and wrongful death cases in state court in Tennessee are jury trials. The jury panel consists of thirty to sixty residents of the county where the trial is taking place.

The attorneys for the participants in the case select the jurors that will actually hear the evidence. The jury selection process is often called voir dire. The potential jurors are asked questions to determine if they will be able to fairly evaluate the evidence and apply the law as given to them by the trial judge. The judge has the power to deny jury service to those who the judge believes will not fairly judge the evidence. The attorney for each litigant can excuse at least four but no more than eight potential jurors for any reason not grounded in the juror’s race, gender, national origin, or religion.

Most jury trials in Tennessee have twelve jurors. It is not uncommon for there to be one or more “alternate” jurors who will serve in the event a regular juror becomes sick or is otherwise unable to serve.

2. Preliminary Jury Instructions 

In recent years, the jury is often given a brief summary of the law at the beginning of the case. The jury is reminded that it should listen to all of the evidence before deciding the case, that no member of the jury may discuss the case with any other person during the trial, and that no juror should do independent research in the case.

3. Opening Statements

After jury selection, the lawyer for each litigant has the right to present a summary of what the lawyer believes the evidence will be at trial. The summary is called an “opening statement.” The length of the opening statement often depends on the complexity of the case. A judge may limit the length of a lawyer’s opening statement. The lawyer for the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) goes first. Then, the lawyer for each defendant (the person who has been sued) gives an opening statement.

4. Presentation of the Plaintiff’s Evidence

The plaintiff presents evidence first. The number of witnesses called usually depends on the complexity of the case.

Each witness called by the plaintiff is asked questions on “direct examination.” Then, the opposing lawyer or lawyers get to “cross examine” the witness.

Witnesses may also be used to bring exhibits before the jury. In personal injury and wrongful death trials, exhibits often include diagrams, photographs, x-rays, medical records, and medical bills. These exhibits are sometimes called “demonstrative aids.”

The goal of the plaintiff is to put on enough evidence to legally establish that they should win the case if the jury believes plaintiff’s evidence. The goal of the defendant is to point out shortcomings or holes in the plaintiff’s case.

5. Defendant’s Motion for a Directed Verdict

After the plaintiff presents all of his or her evidence it is not unusual for the defendant to ask for a “directed verdict.” When a defendant asks for a directed verdict the defendant is saying that (a) the plaintiff did not prove each of the things that the law says must be proved to win a case or (b) no reasonable jury could find in the plaintiff’s favor given the evidence.

The judge decides whether the defendant’s request for a directed verdict should be granted. The judge first determines whether the plaintiff introduced some evidence of each of the things the law says must be proved to win a case. If so, the judge determines whether any reasonable jury could find in favor of the plaintiff. In making this decision, the judge looks at all of the evidence introduced in the case in a way most favorable to the plaintiff.

If the request for a directed verdict is granted, the case is over. If it is denied, the jury then hears the evidence of the defendant.

 6.  Presentation of the Defendant’s Evidence

The defendant introduces evidence through witnesses just like the plaintiff: questions are asked on direct examination. The plaintiff’s lawyer is permitted to cross-examine each witness called by the defendant.

The defendant may also introduce exhibits through the witnesses.

7.  Defendant’s Motion for a Directed Verdict

After the plaintiff and the defendant introduce all the evidence they have, the defendant typically asks again that the judge grant a directed verdict in defendant’s favor. Rarely, the plaintiff may ask for a directed verdict in plaintiff’s favor.

Usually, but not always, motions for a directed verdict are denied, and the jury makes the decision about who should win and who should lose.

8.  Closing Argument

Closing argument is the time when each lawyer reminds the jury of the evidence and explains why his or her client should win the case. The lawyer will argue that the evidence and the law support a ruling in favor of his or her client.

The lawyer for the plaintiff goes first. The lawyer for the defendant goes next. Then, the lawyer for the plaintiff has an opportunity to respond to what the lawyer for the defendant said. This is called a “rebuttal.”

9.  Jury Instructions

After closing argument, the judge then tells the jury the law applicable to the facts they have heard. The jury has an obligation to follow the law (whether they agree with it or not), but it is the jury that determines the facts (what happened) and applies those facts to the law.

In civil cases, juries are instructed that to find a fact as true they must only find that it is more likely true than not true. For example, in a case where the plaintiff alleges that the defendant ran a red light and caused a car accident, the plaintiff has a responsibility to prove that more likely than not the defendant ran a red light and caused the injuries. Plaintiff does not have to prove with 100% certainty that the defendant ran the red light.

At the option of the trial judge, the judge may given jury instructions before the lawyers make their closing arguments.

10.  Jury Deliberation

After receiving the jury instructions the jury is taken to the jury deliberation room to fulfill its duty as judges of the facts. Usually, the first task is to elect a foreperson to preside over the discussions. The jurors then debate what happened in the case and take one or more votes to determine how the case should be resolved.

The jurors are often given a jury verdict form to guide them in their deliberations. The jury verdict form will contain questions that the jury will have to answer. For example, the first question may be “Do you find that the defendant negligently caused the automobile wreck on August 14, 2009?” The next question may be “Do you find that the plaintiff was injured in the automobile wreck of August 14, 2009? Then there will be questions about the damages, if any, to which the plaintiff is entitled.

Jury verdict forms can be very simple or very complicated, depending on the complexity of the case.

11.  Announcement of the Jury Verdict

In Tennessee a jury’s verdict must be unanimous – all 12 jurors must agree. When a unanimous decision has been reached, the jury tells the court officer that they have reached a decision. The court officer then tells the judge that a decision has been reached and the jury is brought back into the courtroom to announce its verdict. The judge reviews the jury verdict form in the courtroom and then the verdict is announced by the jury foreperson. All jurors are then asked if they agree with the verdict that was announced by the jury foreperson. If all jurors are in agreement, the judge thanks the jurors for their service and their role in the case is over.

12.  Preparation of the Judgment

After the jury announces its decision, the winning side prepares a “judgment.” The judgment reports what the jury decided. The judgment is filed with the Court and, if it is accurate, is signed by the Judge.

The judgment will provide that post-judgment interest began to run on the amount of the jury’s verdict on the date the jury announced the verdict. The interest rate on judgments is ten (10%) per year in Tennessee.

13.  Post-Trial Motions

If either the plaintiff or defendant does not agree with the jury’s decision, they have thirty days from the date that the signed judgment is filed with the Clerk of Court to ask the judge to change the result. The judge has the power to do five things.

First, the judge can set aside the result of the jury entirely and enter a judgment for the other side. This is called a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict.” The judge will do this only if he or she believes that the no reasonable jury could reach the result it did. This is very rare. A judge’s decision to grant or deny a request for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict may be appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Second, the judge can order a new trial if he or she is dissatisfied with the verdict. The judge does not have to give a reason why he or she is dissatisfied with the verdict. Ordinarily, a judge’s decision to grant a new trial because of dissatisfaction with the jury’s verdict cannot be appealed. If a new trial is ordered by the judge the litigants will then have another trial before a different judge and jury at a later date.

Third, the judge can approve the verdict and make the judgment a final judgment. If that occurs, the case is over unless there is an appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Fourth, the judge can increase the amount of the verdict. This is called an “additur.” The judge will do this if the judge feels the amount awarded by the jury was unreasonably low. This rarely occurs. If a verdict amount is increased, the defendant can accept the increased amount and pay the judgment, accept the increased amount under protest and appeal the increase to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, or have a new trial before a different jury at a later time.

Fifth, the judge can decrease the amount of the verdict. This is called a “remittitur.” The judge will do this is the judge feels the amount awarded by the jury was unreasonably high. This too is rare. If a verdict is reduced, the plaintiff can accept the reduced amount, accept the reduced amount under protest and appeal the reduction, or have a new trial before a different jury at a different time.

14.  Appeals

If a plaintiff or a defendant has a complaint about the way the trial was conducted or the end result of the trial or the judge’s ruling on post-trial motions, he or she can appeal. In Tennessee, the first appeal is to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals does not hear from witnesses. Rather, it looks at the transcript of the testimony given in the trial court, reviews the exhibits, and determines whether there were any errors than mandate a different result than reached in the trial court. The Court of Appeals can affirm the result reached in the trial court, order a new trial, and sometimes it can outright dismiss a case won by a plaintiff in the trial court.

A plaintiff or defendant that disagrees with the Court of Appeals decision about a case can ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to hear the case. The Tennessee Supreme Court does not hear every case it is asked to hear – it has the right to refuse to hear a case and does not have to give any reason for refusing to hear it. Usually, the Tennessee Supreme Court will not hear a case unless it presents an important issue of law.

Theoretically, the losing party can ask for the United States Supreme Court to hear the appeal. This is a complicated and expensive process. The United States Supreme Court will hear an appeal of a state court civil case only on extremely rare occasions. Most lawyers do not recommend that their clients incur the expense of asking for an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in state court civil cases absent very unusual circumstances.

15.  Payment of Judgments

If a judgment is not appealed, or it is upheld on appeal, the plaintiff must take steps to enforce the judgment.

In most personal injury and wrongful death cases the defendant has liability insurance to pay the amount of the judgment and any interest that has accrued on the judgment. Usually, all that it takes to collect a final judgment from a defendant that has sufficient liability insurance is to write a letter to the lawyer employed by the insurance company and insist that the judgment be paid.

If the defendant does not have liability insurance, or has inadequate insurance, other steps must be taken to collect the judgment. This may include seizing the defendant’s bank accounts, identifying property owned by the defendant and seizing control of it, etc. One threat of this action is that the defendant may file bankruptcy in federal court. If that happens, the plaintiff can take no further action to collect the judgment without permission of the Bankruptcy Court.

16. I believe I have a personal injury or wrongful death case. What do I do?

You should contact a lawyer as soon as possible. It is important that evidence be gathered to determine the validity of the claim. The insurance company for the person or company that caused the death will be working hard to gather that evidence, and you should have a lawyer doing the same.  For a free consultation call John Day at 615.742.4880 or email John at jday@dayblair.com.