Types of Cases: Criminal and Civil
Simply stated, the law is divided into two major areas: criminal and civil. Criminal cases involve government prosecution of individuals charged with illegal conduct, such as robbery or murder. Civil cases are those dealing with family law, corporate law, and lawsuits brought by one individual against another. Personal injury cases fall under the jurisdiction of civil law.
Just as medical doctors today may be trained as specialists in one particular area of health care, attorneys may also specialize in practice areas such as corporate, family, or personal injury law. It is critically important for an individual needing legal counsel to seek out an attorney with the appropriately matched skills and experience.
In a civil suit involving a personal injury complaint, the person who suffers damages is known as the plaintiff. The person or entity accused of causing the injury or damage is known as the defendant. The objective of a personal injury lawsuit is to obtain justice in the form of compensation for the plaintiff on whose behalf the suit is filed.
How Does Personal Injury Lawsuit Work?
Phase One: A lawsuit is initiated when a petition is filed in court against the defendant by the plaintiff’s attorney. Phase Two: In the discovery process, attorneys gather information that will be used to support or dispute allegations of the lawsuit. Phase Three: If the parties involved cannot agree on a negotiated settlement before the appointed court date, the case proceeds to trial.
Phase One: The Petition
A lawsuit is initiated when a petition is filed in court against the defendant by the plaintiff’s attorney. The court numbers each case then issues a citation to each party named as a defendant. The defendant is served with a citation, a copy of the petition, and is given a specified amount of time (usually 20 to 30 days) to file a formal response. The filing of a lawsuit does not always lead to a trial. An estimated 90 percent of all personal injury claims are settled out of court.
Attorneys are prevented by law from approaching anyone in order to solicit business. “Barratry,” which is the legal term for the act more commonly known as “ambulance chasing,” is not only unethical, it is also illegal. Barratry laws are designed to protect citizens from unscrupulous legal practitioners, but the laws apply to all licensed attorneys. The person approaching an accident victim may not even be a lawyer, but someone hired by the lawyer to solicit business in order to avoid the barratry laws. This is still illegal.
Phase Two: Discovery
In the discovery process, attorneys gather information that will be used to support or dispute allegations of the lawsuit. Attorneys for both sides have equal access to all information gathered during this phase. Discovery can involve oral depositions and written answers from witnesses, medical professionals, product and liability experts, and other individuals who can shed relevant light on the investigation. Each side usually requests extensive written documentation ranging from medical and personnel records to photographs and product design specifications. Discovery often requires thousands of hours logged by attorneys, paralegals, private investigators, numerous other staff members, and outside consultants.
After discovery, a settlement can often be reached. This eliminates the third phase of a personal injury lawsuit, during which the case is tried before a judge and jury.
Phase Three: The Trial
If the parties involved cannot agree on a negotiated settlement before the appointed court date, the case proceeds to trial. The jury selection process then begins, wherein members of the community are called at random to appear in court as juror candidates. Attorneys from both sides may question the potential jurors, with the right to excuse those individuals who appear to lack impartiality. When a jury is selected, the actual trial can begin.
Without detailing the intricacies of courtroom procedure, the process can be briefly summarized as follows: Attorneys from both sides present opening statements to the jury outlining the case and any supporting evidence that will be presented. After the conclusion of opening statements, the plaintiff’s attorney proceeds by presenting evidence to the court. Evidence is usually a combination of oral witness testimony and physical evidence such as documents, photographs, x-rays, and medical records. The defense attorney then has the opportunity to present evidence that disputes the plaintiff’s claims. Finally, each attorney delivers a closing argument to the jury panel in a last attempt to influence the jurors in favor of his or her client. After deliberating and reaching a decision in secrecy, the jury presents its verdict to the court. If the verdict is in favor of the plaintiff, the jury also specifies a dollar amount to be paid by the defendant.
The jury may award compensatory damages to restore or “compensate for” the plaintiff’s losses, as well as separate punitive damages which are intended to punish the defendant.
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