Civil Trial Procedures
Most of us have some idea how a trial procedure goes from watching television shows like Judge Judy, Law and Order or CSI. However, what many don’t realize is that there are two very separate sets of steps for civil actions and criminal trials.
First, it is important to understand the difference between a civil suit and a criminal suit process. A civil trial is one held in a civil matter – that is a lawsuit filed by plaintiff(s) against defendant(s) usually for some type of tort, a wrongful act leading to a liability (except contract), or for breach of contract. A criminal trial arises out of a criminal act committed by a defendant, and is brought by the “People” of a city, state, or the Federal government. Before a civil matter reaches the trial stage, it will have undergone several other stages known as the process of civil litigation. This civil lawsuit process includes:
- Initial filing of pleadings – the plaintiff files a complaint, the defendant answers (responds). If the defendant fails to respond, a default judgment may be entered against the defendant.
- Discovery – the period during which both sides investigate, ask questions, depose witnesses and parties and try to discover what evidence and proof the other ‘side’ has to prove their case. This is usually the longest part of the process.
- Motions – this period occurs concurrently with discovery and is the time when attorneys for either side file motions with the court. These motions can be for things such as trying to compel specific document and/or witness production, rulings on the applicability of specific laws to the case, motions to dismiss all or part of the lawsuit, motions to limit documents and/or testimony to be heard at trial, etc. Motions can be filed anytime from immediately after the filing of the complaint and right up until and through the trial itself.
- Pre-trial Settlement Discussions/Mediation/Arbitration – the time when the parties, either through their attorneys, or through a mediator or arbitrator attempt to reach a settlement ‘out of court,’ resolving the matter, and negating the need for a trial.
If the matter fails to settle short of trial, then we move on to the trial process itself. As one would expect, there are several steps to a civil trial procedure. The first step is Jury Selection. A jury is selected from a pool of potential jurors, individuals who are questioned by the judge and attorneys in a process known as voir dire. This process is used to determine an individual’s suitability to serve as an impartial juror for the specific case at bar. Each side tries to impanel individuals who they feel will be sympathetic to their cause. The next step is Opening Statements. Statements are made by the plaintiff’s counsel and then the defense counsel. These statements set out the circumstances and rationale of the plaintiff’s legal complaint and the defendant’s reasons for requesting dismissal of the matter. We then move onto Plaintiff Testimony. This is the first part of the actual trial proceeding and consists of the plaintiff presenting their witnesses and experts to outline the arguments and reasons for the matters outlined in the complaint. The Defense is allowed to cross-examine each witness after examination by the plaintiff. Defense counsel will attempt to dismiss, disprove, or somehow discredit the witnesses’ statements. Once the Plaintiff has presented their entire case, they will ‘rest.’ Then it’s time for Defense Testimony. In this stage, the defense presents their case. This stage is conducted much in the same way as Plaintiff Testimony, with plaintiff’s counsel being allowed to cross-examine defense witnesses in an attempt to disprove or discredit defense witnesses’ statements. The last state of testimony is known as Redirect and/or Recall. Each side may ask the judge to redirect a witness after cross-examination by counsel. Additionally, if new information is learned, or if important information was not divulged during the witness’ original testimony, counsel can recall a witness to the stand for additional questioning or additional cross-examination. Redirect and recall are held at the discretion of the judge, and he can deny redirect or recall. Closing Arguments come next. Here, counsel for both sides summarizes their client’s positions to the jury in an effort to remind the jury of the facts presented during the case, as well as to try and convince the jury of the truth of their cause. Typically, closing arguments are dramatic and pointed for effect. Many trials are ‘won’ at closing argument. At this point, the judge will Charge and Instruct the Jury. He/she orally, and usually in writing as well, provides the jury with specific instructions regarding the laws and rules they are to use to evaluate the case, as well as what questions they are to address as they deliberate. The jury then retires to deliberate, in private, and decide an outcome of the case. Once the jury has reached a decision, they provide the Verdict. The jury will instruct the court when they have reached a decision, or they will inform the court that they cannot reach a decision. Deliberation can take anywhere from several hours to several days, depending on the complexities of the case. The final step is Judgment. Once the judge had received the jury’s verdict, the court will rule and concur rendering the final judgment, determine if a new trial is required, or if the court is so declined, the judge can also dismiss a case outright. As with a criminal matter, if either party disagrees with the jury’s verdict, or the court’s ruling, they can file an Appeal.