You might never have been involved with the court system before, when you suddenly find yourself needing to file a personal injury lawsuit. You might feel anxious or even intimidated, and you may worry about what to expect. Fortunately, though the details of each case are unique, all personal injury lawsuits follow the same general step by step process. We will be with you throughout your journey, explaining what you need to do. For those who like to understand the overall process, though, here is a step by step guide to personal injury lawsuits in Texas.
Filing the Lawsuit
The person seeking compensation is the plaintiff, and the other party is the defendant. As the plaintiff, you start the ball rolling by filing a lawsuit with the court. The defendant will receive a citation, which gives him or her approximately three weeks to respond. In most cases, the first response is “general denial,” in which the defendant claims that your allegations are false.
Most defendants to personal injury lawsuits are covered by insurance, and their insurance company hires a defense attorney. Other defendants hire their own lawyer. Regardless of who pays for the defense counsel, though, the next stage is known as “discovery.”
Discovery is the opportunity for both parties to learn as much as they can about the case that the other side is building. Stacks of written documents may be exchanged by the opposing lawyers. You may also need to complete an interrogatory, which is a written list of questions about your claims, witnesses, and other details of your case.
Please note that you must answer all written requests within a reasonable period of time. Failure to respond could damage your case. For example, you might receive a “request for admission,” which asks you to admit that a certain statement is true. If you don’t answer in writing within the designated time frame, you will be deemed to have admitted that the statement is true.
Depositions are also a normal part of discovery. This is a recorded statement in which someone connected to the lawsuit is questioned under oath in front of a court reporter. This statement can then be admitted as evidence during the trial. You, the defendant, eyewitnesses, and various experts may need to provide depositions.
Near the end of the discovery phase, either party may file a motion for summary judgment. This is a request that the court find in that party’s favor based on the law, without digging into the specific facts of the case. Summary judgments are rarely filed in typical personal injury lawsuits.
Mediation is a settlement conference facilitated by a lawyer or a former judge with special training. Either party may request it in an attempt to avoid going to trial. Both parties, accompanied by your attorneys, will sit down with the mediator to try to reach a resolution. You will both be given the opportunity to make an opening statement and present your case, and you will then be separated into different rooms. The mediator will go back and forth between the rooms talking to each party to try to negotiate a settlement.
If a settlement is reached, the case is over. If not, then the case proceeds to trial. However, the mediation session is considered confidential, and nothing from it can be used at trial.
The trial is separated into five distinct phases:
Jury Selection: Officially known as Voir Dire, jury selection decides who will hear the case. Potential jurors are brought into the courtroom and questioned by both attorneys as well as the judge. Either side can dismiss, or “strike,” a juror. There are two types of strikes—peremptory and “for cause.”
Peremptory strikes allow the attorney to strike a juror for any reason (except prohibited reasons such as race), or even “just because.” However, they are limited in number. “For cause” strikes occur when the juror shows bias or prejudice against the case or the client, and there is no limitation on the number of “for cause” strikes. Jury selection continues until the lawyers agree on 6 jurors plus alternates (county court) or 12 jurors plus alternates (district court).
Opening Statements: Both lawyers get an opening statement in which they tell the jury what they intend to prove. Technically, they are not supposed to present arguments as part of the opening statement, but this is a murky area.
Evidence: The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to show that 1) an injury occurred, 2) the defendant was responsible, and 3) damages occurred. Your lawyer will go first, calling witnesses and introducing exhibits as needed. The defense attorney has the right to cross-examine each witness. This process continues until your lawyer is finished and “rests” his or her case. Then it is the defense lawyer’s turn, and your lawyer may cross-examine each defense witness.
Closing Arguments: When the defense “rests,” the judge will give instructions to the jury. Then both attorneys will make their closing arguments.
Deliberations: The jury will make their deliberations in the privacy of the jury room. Depending on the complexity of the case, it could take minutes, hours, or days for the jury to reach a verdict. Everyone will return to the courtroom to listen to the verdict.
Additional motions and hearings may be involved in your case, and the losing party has the right to appeal. In general, though, the basic steps above are what you can expect from a personal injury lawsuit in Texas.
Ready to Get Started?
If you need a passionate and experienced personal injury attorney in the Houston area, contact Jerome Fjeld & Associates, PLLC today at (713) 572-6446 to schedule your free consultation.