The Nuts and Bolts of a Trial in Suffolk County

The essential facts about trials in Suffolk County.

By Mark T. Freeley, Esq. (Open Post)April 2, 2012 at 11:42am

When a legal action seeking compensation for serious personal injuries cannot be resolved between the attorney representing the injured person (Plaintiff) and the insurance company that insures the person that caused the injuries (defendant), a jury trial may be necessary to resolve the matter. A case may not settle for a variety of reasons. There may be a difference of opinion as to which party was at fault and/or to what degree, especially if there are multiple defendants, as a lot of finger pointing usually occurs. There may also be disagreement about the value of the plaintiff's damages, including the severity of the injuries and how they affect the daily life of the plaintiff and their ability to work.

Trials in Suffolk County are bifurcated, meaning there are 2 separate parts to them. The first part deals with liability only, who was at fault and what are the percentages of fault between the parties. The jury is not permitted to hear anything about the plaintiff's injuries during this part of the trial. It may be 100% against a party, or 50-50, 75-25, etc. The jury is the trier of fact and will make the determination as to fault. The judge will tell the jury what the involved law is and the jury will apply the law to the facts of the case before them. As long as the plaintiff was not found 100% at fault for causing the accident, the second part of the trial will then begin. This is called the damages phase and deals with only the injuries, pain, suffering, loss of income, etc.

The first step in the trial process is to select a jury, which is comprised of 6 jurors and 2 alternate jurors. Alternate jurors are selected in case a juror becomes ill or for some other reason can no longer serve. After the jury is selected by the attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant, opening statements are made by each attorney. The openings tend to outline to the jury what each attorney feels the evidence will show during the trial to support their claims or to dispute the claims of the opposing side.

Once the opening statements have been completed, the plaintiff's attorney will then proceed to present the witnesses and evidence necessary to substantiate that the defendant/s was at fault for the accident. The plaintiff and defendant/s will testify on direct and cross examination, as well as any eye witnesses and possibly the investigating police officer. The accident report, scene photos, vehicle photos and other tangible items may be marked into evidence and presented to the jury to help them decide the issue of fault. Once the plaintiff's attorney rests, the defendant's attorney has an opportunity to present their witnesses and evidence as well. Thereafter, closing statements/arguments are made by all attorneys wherein each will remind the jury what the evidence showed and how it favors their clients. This is the final opportunity to persuade the jury to find in favor of their clients. The judge will then instruct the jury on what the applicable law is and the jurors will then begin their deliberations to achieve a fair and just verdict. The verdict sheet will be quite simple in a motor vehicle accident case, and will likely ask: Was the defendant negligent, yes/no? Was the negligence of the defendant a proximate cause of the accident, yes/no? Then the same 2 questions about the plaintiff. Finally, What % of fault was the defendant? What was the % of fault of the plaintiff? The total must equal 100%.

The damages phase will then begin with openings again by both sides, and the plaintiff and his/her treating doctors will testify about the injuries sustained by the plaintiff. Evidence may include ambulance/hospital records, x-ray/CT scan/MRI films, medical diagrams/models, etc. Testimony may also come from life care planners, vocational rehabilitation experts, and economists. The life care planners may testify about what medical treatment the plaintiff will require over their lifetime, including future surgeries, tests, therapy and medication. The vocational expert may testify that the plaintiff can no longer work at all, or only in a limited capacity and explain what possible jobs the plaintiff could perform, what re-training or additional education would be required, and what the pay scale of those jobs would be. The economist would then take the numbers given by the life care planner and vocational expert and project what the future cost of the necessary medical needs will be and what the economic income loss will be to the injured plaintiff.

Both sides will then make closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury as to the law, and deliberations on damages will begin. The verdict sheet will focus on 3 main questions involving amounts of compensation for different categories of damages: Pain & Suffering, which includes a loss of quality/enjoyment of the plaintiff's life due to the injuries; Loss of income; Medical expenses. All three categories will have 2 parts to provide compensation for: Past, meaning the period of time from the date of the accident up until the date of the jury verdict; and Future, from the date of the verdict through the period of time that the jury finds is necessary. For the pain & suffering ,this may be for the remainder of plaintiff's life, or for the number of years that the jury believes the plaintiff's life will be affected by the injuries. For the loss of income, it may be for the remainder of plaintiff's work life expectancy, or for the number of years the jury feels plaintiff will be unable to work, or for the difference in what the plaintiff was earning before the injury compared to what they can now earn. For medical bills it includes all necessary future medical treatment, surgery, testing, therapy, medication, etc., this can be a very large number, especially when the future costs are projected by the economist.

Once the damages verdict is arrived at, the judge will reduce the total amount awarded to the plaintiff by the jury by any percentage of fault that the jury found the plaintiff to be at for contributing to the accident during the liability portion of the trial.

The jurors of Suffolk County take their service as jurors seriously and they do a great job. It is not easy work, and both sides of the legal action count on them to make their decisions based upon the facts presented to them in court and to leave any bias or pre-conceived notions or ideas out of the process. Common sense is the only tool a juror needs to bring to the courthouse. Serving as a juror may be a temporary inconvenience, but it is absolutely essential that everyone participates so that we can ensure a true jury of our peers. So the next time you get that Juror Summons, don't be nervous or try to squirm out of it somehow. Step up to the plate and help serve up some justice. You never know when you may need some fair-minded, level headed person just like yourself on a jury deciding the outcome your case.