How Does a Civil Trial Actually Work in Utah?

Many people understand that trials occur in criminal cases all the time – that a defendant is put before a jury of his or her peers and they decide whether he or she is guilty or innocent.  What people may not understand is that civil cases can also go to court, are also put before a jury, and can also be won or lost in the crucible of trial.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to a jury trial, even for civil matters.  Utah follows this system.  While the vast majority of cases are either settled out of court, or settled before trial starts, some cases do go all the way to trial.  If you are considering litigation (going to court) over a civil matter, whether it be personal injury, an intentional tort, or a medical malpractice claim, it is important to understand how the process of a civil case and trial works.

Filing, Pleadings, and Service of Process

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The first step in actually starting a civil lawsuit is to file your “complaints” with the court.  This is something that lawyers are very familiar with, and if you get an attorney, this can be done quite easily.  Note that there are usually some filing fees involved.

It is important to understand what court should get the complaint.  In Utah, there are two main types of courts: justice courts and district courts.  Both of them are assigned to different geographic areas, and most areas will have at least one of each type of court.  The actual responsibilities of the court are split, though, with district courts generally handling more complicated and severe matters than district courts.

If the claim you are filing is considered a “small claim,” it should be filed in a justice court.  Small claims actions are cases in which the amount in dispute is less than $10,000 and do not always use attorneys.  $10,000 is as lot of money to many people, though, so you may not want to risk going into such a case without an attorney.  If either the “plaintiff,” the party filing for a lawsuit, or the “defendant,” the party defending against the lawsuit, wants to “remove” the case to the higher district court, they may do so.  Other cases are filed with the district court, where an attorney is generally used because of the strict rules.

After the plaintiff files a complaint, the defendant files an “answer” to that complaint.  These documents, called “pleadings,” can go back and forth, shaping and reshaping what the case is about.  In the end, these documents give the general details about what the plaintiff is claiming happened, what the plaintiff wants to receive, what the defendant admits to, and what the defendant denies.  Ultimately, the facts in the complaint are what the trial will attempt to prove or disprove

After filing with the court, notice of the filing must be given to all defendants.  It is required, before a court is able to hear a case or force someone to pay any money, that they be given notice.  There are particular rules about how and when notice must be given and when responses must be made, so it is important to get help from a lawyer to make sure your case is heard.

The Pretrial Processes in Utah

Before the case is put before a judge and jury, there are other processes that occur.  There are often pretrial conferences made with a judge, where both sides’ attorneys sit down and try to work things out about the case.  There may be additional, more formal moves to try and settle a case.  This may involve working with mediators or other parties that will listen to both sides and try to work out a compromise.  Most cases do not end up actually going to trial, and so are often resolved by mediation or settlement discussions.

“Discovery” is the name of a process that occurs before trial where each side makes requests for evidence and information from the other side.  Things like bank records, hospital bills, photos, and financial records may all be important documents requested during discovery.  There is also an opportunity for attorneys to ask each side questions.  What information is found during discovery may help persuade either side that the case is not worth taking to court (either because damages are much different than expected, or because the case cannot be proven in court), and may help lead to settlement.

A “deposition” is a more detailed form of questioning that often occurs before civil trials.  The right of deposition is not something that criminal cases usually allow, but it is very common in civil cases.  For a deposition, attorneys from both sides are usually present for the questioning of people who would later be witnesses at trial.  Their testimony is recorded by a court reporter or recording device.  During depositions, attorneys can make objections to questions and evidence, which may be removed from the record after a judge rules on them.

Each side is also allowed to make requests of the court, called “motions,” during this time.  Common motions are motions for summary judgment, which ask the court to rule against the other side based solely on the information contained in the pleadings.  Basically, they say that even if everything the other side says is 100% true, they still lose this case.  Judges usually grant or deny these motions based on what the law says.

These are usually handled by filing “briefs” that explain the law, and possibly by going to court to argue the points within the briefs in “oral argument.”  These processes involve a judge only – there is no jury involved in the case yet.

Other motions may deal with blocking or allowing witnesses or pieces of evidence from use at trial.  Some may be used to force the other side to comply with discovery procedures.  In some situations, motions are used to request that an attorney or party be punished (called “sanctioned”) for failing to listen to pretrial rules or destroying evidence.

The Trial

Once everything that needs to be turned over in discovery has been turned over, witnesses have been deposed, and both sides have tried and failed to reach a settlement, a case actually goes to trial.  A trial has many parts.  Most of these parts are present in both criminal and civil trials, but each one has special rules that only apply to that type of trial.  The following is the general process for a civil trial:

Jury Selection

The process for choosing a jury involves talking to or questioning jurors in a process called “voir dire.”  From the larger jury pool, selected through jury duty assignments, the attorneys from each side and the judge work to select a “petite jury” of eight people.  While most criminal trials use twelve jurors, civil trials in Utah only use eight, but alternate jurors are usually selected in case any jurors get sick or cannot come to court during trial.  The attorneys work to make sure the selected jurors are going to be fair toward their side, or may choose jurors intentionally because they might be more likely to agree with their side.

Opening Statements

witness swears on bible in utah criminal defense trial

The first step in a trial is for the attorneys from each side to talk to the jury and explain the case.  The plaintiff gets to go first.  Each side explains their theory of what happened and why they should be able to win their case.  This helps the jury understand what information to look for as the trial goes forward.  These are called “statements,” because no argument is allowed at this time.  This is also, unlike on TV shows, the last opportunity that the attorneys have to speak directly to the jury until the end of the trial.

Plaintiff’s Case in Chief

The next step is when the plaintiff calls witnesses and presents evidence to try to prove their case against the defendant.  They do this by having witnesses testify and asking them questions through “direct examination.”  The goal is for witnesses to tell the story of the case to the court.  The defense gets to ask pointed yes or no questions in what is called “cross-examination” to try to reshape the plaintiff’s story.  The defense also makes objections, when appropriate.  At the end of this, the plaintiff finishes by “resting.”

Motion for Directed Verdict

Usually, after the plaintiff presents their case, the defense will make a “motion for directed verdict.”  This motion says that, even if everything the plaintiff has shown is 100% true, the defense should still win.  Usually, these are denied and the trial proceeds.  If they are granted, for instance, because the plaintiff did not prove a necessary element of the case, the defense wins.

Defendant’s Case in Chief

Next is the defendant’s opportunity to tell the story.  By calling their own witnesses and using their own evidence, the defense tries to prove that the plaintiff is wrong – or that the plaintiff is actually the one responsible for what happened.  If the jury were to find that the plaintiff was actually more at fault than the defendant, the defense wins the trial.  The plaintiff is allowed to cross-examine defense witnesses and make objections during this stage, and at the end, the defense rests.

Rebuttal

In some cases, after the defendant’s case in chief, the plaintiff is allowed a chance to recall witnesses to reshape what the defense said.  This works like the case in chief, with the plaintiff using direct examination and the defense getting another opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.  If the defense needs a chance to present evidence and witnesses again, they may get a “surrebuttal,” which works the same way and goes after the plaintiff’s rebuttal.

Jury Instructions

Next, the judge reads off all jury instructions to the jury.  These instructions are often selected by the judge with input from each side’s attorneys.  This tells the jury all the law and rules they need to know to understand how to decide the case.  The judge also explains the plaintiff’s “burden of proof,” which is the level to which the plaintiff must prove the case.  In a civil case, that burden is called “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which means that the plaintiff must prove that, more likely than not, they are correct.  Most people think of this as anything over 50% in favor of the plaintiff.  If the plaintiff fails to reach this level, the defendant wins.

Closing Arguments

This is the last step of the trial, and the last opportunity for the attorneys to talk directly to the jury.  This is where each side wraps-up the case.  They explain the pieces of information that were shown during witness testimony and from evidence, and they argue how they fit together.  They also argue why their client’s side is right and why the jury should rule in their favor.  The plaintiff goes first, but often gets to put some time toward getting the final word.

The Verdict

The jury, after closing arguments, goes to a jury room to “deliberate” on the case.  This is where they discuss the case with each other and decide which side was right.  They also decide what amounts of money, if any, should be paid in damages, and which defendants are responsible (if there is more than one defendant).  This may take a few hours or much longer depending on the complexity of the case.

Ultimately, the process of a trial is lengthy and time-consuming, even for attorneys who are experienced in trial practice.  Trials are also expensive and time consuming for each party and the court itself.  That is why so many cases are settled before every going to trial.  Even after trial starts, the parties can decide to settle at any time up to the jury’s verdict, if they think things might not be going their way.

Let a Utah Personal Injury Attorney Help You With Your Civil Trial

If you are thinking about starting a civil suit against someone for personal injury, medical malpractice, or an intentional tort in Utah, get an attorney who can help you through the process and win your case.  Darwin Overson is an experienced civil attorney in Utah with experience in a variety of civil suits, especially personal injury and medical malpractice.  For a free consultation, call (801) 895-3143.

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