Personal injury cases involve four primary stages: Pleadings, Discovery, Pre-trial Motions, & Trial.
The pleadings stage begins with the filing and service of the summons and complaint. The warrant provides all named parties with notice of the lawsuit. It tells the 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 seeks 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 the 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 claims. These defenses, often referred to as “affirmative defenses,” are legal reasons why the defendant should not be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.
Discovery refers to the pre-trial process where the plaintiff and defendant exchange information they plan to use to support their claims and defenses at trial.
Discovery in personal injury cases can take one of four forms:
- Requests for admission
- Requests for document production
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
Requests for admission are requests for a party to acknowledge or deny specific facts about the case. They carry penalties for not answering, falsely answering, or even answering late. Requests for admission are generally only used to establish basic facts. Once a party responds, it eliminates the need for further discovery on that issue.
Requests for Document Production
Requests for production are demands for copies of documents and other items that the plaintiff intends to rely on to support his claims. This may include:
- Accident reports
- Inventory reports
- Business records
- Or anything else relevant to the case
For example, 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 the attorney for one party and a witness for the other party. A court reporter usually records the transcript from the session at the deposition table.
Depending on the case’s complexity, depositions may be very short or take several days to complete. Regardless of their particular format, depositions are usually the most critical part of the discovery process because of how profoundly they can impact the relative strength of one’s 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 the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. The trial allows the plaintiff to present their case to obtain a judgment against the defendant.
The trial also allows the defendant to refute the plaintiff’s case. A complete personal injury trial consists of several phases, including jury selection, opening statements, direct and cross-examining witnesses, closing arguments, jury instructions, jury deliberations, and the verdict. The majority of personal injury cases are settled long before trial.