Anatomy of a Lawsuit

First Things First: I Need a Lawyer.

The first step for the client is, perhaps, the most important step: the client must choose a lawyer. An experienced, skilled lawyer not only possesses the expertise to prepare a case for trial and then to conduct the trial, the skilled lawyer has the insight to recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of his or her client's case and the strengths and weaknesses of the other side's case.

After you Hire a Lawyer: The Next Step.

In personal injury cases, it is usually a good idea to talk to the insurance company for the person or company that caused the injury in an effort to settle the case before filing a lawsuit. Your lawyer will usually contact the insurance company fairly soon after you hire him or her. In many cases, especially in medical malpractice or product liability cases, your lawyer will probably need to consult with medical experts, engineering experts or other types of experts in order to know enough about your case to actually negotiate with the insurance company.

Lawsuits.

If your case does not settle during the course of your lawyer's discussion with the other side's insurance company, then a lawsuit must be filed. Generally speaking, lawsuits must be filed within two years from the date of the injury or death. The time within which a lawsuit must be filed is called the statute of limitations.

Once a lawsuit is filed, a process called "pretrial discovery" begins. During the pretrial discovery process, the lawyers exchange information and documents. Depositions of the people involved in the lawsuit, as well as anyone else with relevant information, are taken.

Settlement After a Lawsuit is Filed.

After a lawsuit is filed, your case may still settle even though settlement discussions which took place before suit was filed were unsuccessful. Once the lawsuit is filed, your case may still settle within days or weeks of the filing or it could settle right before trial. In fact, most cases where a lawsuit is filed settle at some time before trial begins.

Trial.

If your case does not settle during the pretrial discovery process, it will sooner or later be assigned for trial and trial will begin. First, the lawyers talk with the judge to go over preliminary matters, such as what evidence can be used or when certain witnesses will testify. After that, the jury selection process begins. During the jury selection process, the lawyers and the judge question many potential jurors in an attempt to find twelve people, or in some cases, six people, who seem able to be fair and impartial.

Once the two lawyers and the judge decide upon twelve people who they think will be fair and impartial, then each lawyer is entitled to give what is called an "opening statement." The point of the opening statement is to give the jury an overall perspective of the case so that the individual pieces of evidence will make sense as the jury hears or sees them.

The injured person is called the plaintiff. The person who is sued is called the defendant. During the plaintiff's opening statement, the lawyer will tell the jury what evidence he or she expects that the jury will hear and the defendant's lawyer will do the same.

After opening statements by each lawyer, then the plaintiff's lawyer calls as witnesses any people which he or she thinks may be helpful to their client's case. During the questioning of the witnesses, the lawyer may present photographs or other documents and ask the witnesses about those items. When the plaintiff's lawyer is done questioning a witness, then the defendant's lawyer is allowed to cross examine the witness. After the plaintiff's witnesses are called, the defendant's lawyer can present any additional witnesses or evidence. The plaintiff's lawyer is entitled to cross examine any witnesses presented by the defendant. After the plaintiff presents all of his evidence and the defendant presents all of his evidence, then the plaintiff is entitled to present any rebuttal evidence that she has.

Once all of the evidence is presented by both sides, then each lawyer is entitled to give a "closing argument." As with the opening statement and presentation of the evidence, the plaintiff's lawyer goes first in closing argument. During the closing argument, the lawyers will typically summarize the evidence as they see it, argue to the jury that the evidence is favorable to their client, and also argue to the jury that they should decide the case in favor of their client.

Then the judge tells the jury what laws, called jury instructions, apply to the case. A jury verdict must be unanimous. Once the jury reaches a decision, they go back into the courtroom to inform the judge, the lawyers, and the parties as to their decision.

In some fairly rare cases, the jury is not able to reach a unanimous decision. If that happens, the judge will declare a mistrial and a new trial date will be set where the trial will begin all over again with a new jury.

Collecting Money After Trial.

If the plaintiff wins the case, a judgment is entered in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendant immediately after the trial is over. Once a judgment is entered, the defendant owes that money to the plaintiff .

Appeals.

If either party does not like the jury's decision, that party is entitled to appeal the case to the appellate court. However, in most cases the appellate court's review of the case is limited to very specific procedural or technical grounds. If the appellate court decides that the trial judge made a mistake in allowing the jury to hear or see certain evidence, then the appellate court may order that a new trial take place because the improper evidence unfairly prejudiced the losing side.

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