What Makes a Personal Injury Case go to Trial?

The vast majority of personal injury claims settle before trial. Learn more about your personal injury claim process and what factors may influence whether or not your case settles or goes to trial.

What Makes a Personal Injury Case Go to Trial? - If the defendant does not want to settle, or if the plaintiff's lawyer thinks the settlement offer is too low, the case may go to trial.
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What Makes a Personal Injury Case Go to Trial?

Contrary to what you see portrayed in the movies and on television, personal injury and criminal cases that go to trial are the exception rather than the rule. Government studies show that 90% of criminal cases end with a guilty plea after a defense lawyer negotiates a plea bargain with prosecutors. Of the remaining cases, 2% went to trial, and 8% were dismissed.

The number of civil cases going to trial is only slightly greater. Only 4% of personal injury cases go to trial. Cases that do not go to trial usually end in a settlement.

These statistics might have you wondering what makes a case go to trial. You want the best possible outcome in a criminal case or a civil lawsuit seeking compensation for injuries caused by another person’s negligence. Sometimes, a jury trial may be the only way to get an acquittal when you have been wrongly charged. Or it might be the only way to receive fair compensation when you suffer injuries because of someone else’s negligent conduct.

As you read this article, you’ll learn why some cases go to trial while others settle. When finished, you’ll be better positioned to work with your criminal defense attorney or personal injury attorney to get the best possible outcome from your criminal or civil case.

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Key Takeaways

  • Most criminal cases and civil cases do not go to trial.
  • Taking a case to trial requires an evaluation of factors specific to each case.
  • People sometimes blame their lawyer for taking too long to settle a civil case or negotiate a plea bargain in a criminal case, but the goal is achieving a favorable outcome, which takes time.

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Why Do Cases Go To Trial?

There are two types of cases in federal and state courts: Civil cases and criminal cases. Criminal cases involve violations of state or federal criminal laws. Prosecutors appointed or elected to their positions file criminal charges. The defendant charged in a criminal case has the constitutional right to be represented by a criminal defense attorney to force the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The burden of proof in criminal cases means the prosecution must present evidence to convince jurors that were it not for the accused’s conduct, there would not have been a crime committed. It’s a tough burden to meet, so prosecutors may agree to a plea bargain rather than risk going to trial in exchange for a guilty plea.

The defendant in a criminal case may see the benefit in a guilty plea instead of a trial in exchange for a lighter sentence or to avoid a criminal record. For example, imprisonment is a typical sentence in felony cases, so a plea agreement that reduces the length of imprisonment or allows a person to avoid it and report to a probation officer instead of going to prison may be attractive to a defendant in a criminal case.

Personal injury lawsuits are civil cases brought by someone injured in an accident. The plaintiff, who is the injured person, does not want to put the defendant in prison. Instead, the plaintiff was to recover compensation from the defendant through monetary damages.

A personal injury case goes to trial unless the lawyers for the parties negotiate a settlement. Standing in the way of a settlement could be the defense lawyer or an insurance company claims adjuster refusing to believe there is enough evidence to prove negligence. There may be a trial if the defense believes a plaintiff’s compensation demand is too high based on the injuries and facts of the case.

Timeline of a Trial

When the trial date finally arrives, in criminal cases and civil cases, the trial timelines are similar. Jury trials usually include the following steps:

  1. Gathering a jury: Voir dire is the process of choosing jurors to consider the evidence in a case and reach a verdict. Voir dire gives the lawyers in civil and criminal cases the opportunity to ask questions of prospective jurors to seat a jury panel that is unbiased toward their client.
  2. Opening statements: The lawyers in civil cases and the prosecutor and defense lawyers in criminal cases make opening statements after selecting jurors. The prosecutor goes first in a criminal trial, and the plaintiff’s attorney is first to speak in a civil case. The prosecutor in a criminal trial and the plaintiff’s lawyer in a civil case use opening statements to inform jurors about the case and the evidence they intend to present during the trial. Criminal defense attorneys and defense lawyers in civil cases use opening statements to cast doubt on the strength of the case.
  3. Witness testimony and cross-examination: Lawyers present evidence during a trial to prove the facts of the case. Direct examination is when a lawyer obtains evidence by asking their witnesses questions. After their testimony, the attorney for the opposing party has the right to cross-examine the witness. Cross-examination is used to cast doubt on the testimony presented during direct examination.
  4. Closing arguments: Each lawyer can address the panel of jurors to summarize the evidence in a light most favorable to the side they represent in a closing argument. The defense lawyers make their closing arguments first, and the plaintiff’s lawyer in a civil case goes last, as does the prosecutor in a criminal trial.
  5. Jury instructions and deliberation: The judge instructs jurors in the law that applies in the case. When the judge finishes the instructions, the jury leaves the courtroom to discuss the evidence and vote on a verdict.
  6. Jury verdict: The jurors return to the courtroom when they agree on a verdict or outcome. In criminal cases, the verdict can be guilty or not guilty, which you may hear a lawyer refer to as an acquittal. The verdict in personal injury cases first determines whether the defendant was at fault and how much the plaintiff gets as compensation.

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What Factors Influence Whether or Not a Personal Injury Case Goes To Trial?

The evidence available to prove the facts of the case, including the negligence of a defendant, is only one of the factors affecting whether or not a personal injury case goes to trial. Other factors include the following:

  • Lack of evidence: A plaintiff has the burden of proof in a personal injury case. Defense attorneys may want to take their chance at trial when they believe there is insufficient evidence to prove the claim. Conversely, a strong case with evidence supporting the claim will likely settle because of the risk of a substantial jury award in favor of the injured person.
  • Demanding more than a case is worth: Defense attorneys and claims adjusters evaluate the facts of a case and the severity of the injuries to determine its value. An unrealistic demand by a plaintiff may result in defense lawyers and insurance companies refusing to settle, figuring they can do better at trial.
  • Insurance company tactics: Insurance companies sometimes refuse to settle a civil case to put financial pressure on a plaintiff who cannot work because of injuries from an accident to force a plaintiff to accept less than what the case is worth. A lawsuit loan that allows a plaintiff to borrow against the value of a personal injury claim may be a way to counter unfair tactics.

Experienced personal injury attorneys give plaintiffs the best chance of recovering the compensation they are entitled to by gathering the evidence needed to build a strong claim to take to trial.

Pros and Cons of Going To Trial

There are advantages and disadvantages to taking a civil case to trial. Some of the benefits of a trial include the following:

  • A jury verdict may award more money than an insurance company wants to pay.
  • A settlement is a compromise, but a trial results in a jury verdict based on the evidence.
  • Some state courts may award punitive damages against a defendant whose conduct is proven at trial to be outrageous or shocking.

Disadvantages of going to trial include:

  • It may take years to get a trial date.
  • The outcome of a jury trial is never a certainty.
  • Trials are costly, with fees for expert witness testimony and other expenses reducing what a plaintiff receives from a jury verdict.

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Timeline of a settlement

A settlement can be achieved at any stage of a civil case to recover compensation for personal injuries. Following is a typical settlement timeline:

  • Submission of a demand letter: Plaintiff’s lawyer sends a demand letter to the defense attorney summarizing the facts of the case, a description of the injuries, and the amount demanded to settle the claim.
  • Defense lawyer or insurance company review of demand letter: The defense lawyer or claims adjuster reviews the demand letter and facts of the case to prepare a response in the form of a counteroffer.
  • Negotiations: The purpose of settlement negotiations is to find common ground acceptable to all parties someplace between the original demand and counteroffer.
  • Settlement: A settlement agreement is prepared when all parties agree on the amount to be paid to resolve the case. If it cannot be settled, a trial court sets a date to select potential jurors and begin opening statements.

Settlement negotiations usually continue even after a trial begins and the parties begin to present evidence.

Pros and Cons of Settling Before Trial

The following are some of the advantages of settling a claim:

  • Settling is faster than waiting for a trial date.
  • Avoids the uncertainty of the outcome of a jury trial.
  • It may save the cost of expert witnesses and other trial expenses.

The following are the cons associated with a settlement:

  • A settlement offer may be less than the verdict in a jury trial.
  • Settlements do not include punitive damages.
  • Insurance companies use settlement negotiations to delay.

Plaintiffs should discuss the pros and cons of settling with their personal injury lawyers.

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Questions Others are Asking

See below for a few questions relating to personal injury lawsuit settlements.

How long does a compensation claim take to settle?

Various factors, including the facts of the case, can affect how long a personal injury claim takes to settle. A common factor is the medical treatment a plaintiff needs. On-going medical treatment can delay a settlement until the full extent of the injuries and the medical expenses can be determined.

Why is my lawyer taking so long to settle my case?

A delay may not be the fault of your lawyer. If an insurance company or defense lawyer refuses to negotiate in good faith, your lawyer cannot force them to settle. Moving the case toward trial may be the best solution.

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