A South Carolina personal injury lawsuit is not a simple matter. There are multiple stages to the process. And while many cases do not go through all of these steps, it is still helpful to understand how the full process works.
Step 1: Filing the Pleadings
All personal injury lawsuits begin with a complaint. This is a statement of the plaintiff’s allegations against the defendant. The complaint does not include all of the evidence or information that the plaintiff may present at trial. Rather, it serves as a brief overview of the facts of the case and identifies the specific legal basis on which the defendant (or defendants) may be liable for some harm caused to the plaintiff.
Once a complaint is filed and served, the defendant will then file a responsive pleading known as answer. The answer usually contains a series of statements admitting or denying the allegations in the complaint. The answer may also include one or more counter-claims against the plaintiff. For example, if you are in a two-car accident and sue the other driver for negligence, she may turn around and file a counterclaim alleging you were actually responsible for the accident.
In many cases, the defendant will defer filing an answer and instead move to dismiss your complaint. This can lead to an extended back-and-forth process where the plaintiff will file one or more amended complaints. Eventually—assuming the judge does not dismiss the case—the parties will file their final pleadings, which serve to define the exact factual and legal issues for the court to resolve.
Step 2: Discovery
The next stage of the litigation process is discovery. This allows both sides to seek information from the other that may be relevant to the case. Much of discovery involves paperwork. One side files written questions—known as interrogatories—for the other to answer. The parties may request production of documents or even admissions to particular statements of fact.
Discovery can also involve taking oral depositions from the parties and any other witnesses. Keep in mind, depositions are usually conducted under oath, which means that all parties are sworn to give truthful testimony under penalty of perjury. Deposition testimony may also be introduced at trial to challenge the credibility of a party or witness who might have changed their story.
Another element of discovery is the introduction of expert witnesses. Many times, the testimony of the parties and eyewitnesses alone is insufficient to establish (or disprove) liability. In a medical malpractice case, for instance, the plaintiff will need to produce one or more experts who are competent to explain how the defendant’s actions departed from the accepted standard of care. Even in something like a car accident lawsuit, a technical expert can help reconstruct the events leading up the accident.
Also during discovery either party may ask the judge to grant summary judgment in its favor. A summary judgment basically means that there is no genuine factual or legal dispute for a jury to resolve. The judge considers a summary judgment motion by looking at the available facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. In other words, if the plaintiff moves for summary judgment, the judge will only grant the motion if, looking at the facts in the light most favorable to the defendant, there is no question that the plaintiff is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.
Step 3: Trial
Once discovery is completed—and assuming the judge does not grant summary judgment to either side—the case can finally proceed to trial. The South Carolina and federal constitutions guarantee either side the right to demand a trial by jury. However, the parties can also agree to allow the judge to try the case without a jury. In the case of a jury trial, the attorneys for both sides will question potential jurors in a process known as voir dire. This process ensures that the jurors are impartial—that is, they do not have any advanced information about the case and they are not biased for or against either party.
Whether the case is tried before a jury or a judge alone, the trial proceeds in a similar manner. Anyone who has ever watched a courtroom drama on television knows how this works: The attorneys for each side make opening statements, witnesses are called and questioned, and exhibits are introduced. Following closing statements, the judge or jury will render a verdict.
Step 4: Appeal
Almost immediately after a verdict is announced the losing side may appeal. The appeals process usually begins with the trial judge. The losing party may ask the judge to throw out the jury’s verdict as inconsistent with the law or even demand a new trial. If that proves unsuccessful, the losing party may ask an appellate court to review the judgment.
Appellate review is not the same thing as trial. An appeals court usually consists of a panel of judges. They will generally not reconsider the evidence—i.e., they will not re-question the witnesses—but instead confine themselves to determining whether there were any legal errors made by the trial judge.
The appeals process largely consists of filing written briefs with the appeals court. Once the court has rendered its decision, the losing side may seek further review at a higher appellate court, such as the South Carolina Supreme Court. But once appellate review is exhausted, the case is over, unless the appeals court has ordered a new trial or further proceedings before the trial court to resolve any outstanding issues.
The entire process described above can take several years to complete. Appellate review alone often takes well over a year. But in many personal injury cases there may be alternatives, such as settlement or mediation, that can resolve the situation much quicker. An experienced Myrtle Beach personal injury lawyer can advise you at all stages of the litigation process and ensure your best interests are represented. Contact the Joye Law Firm today at (888) 324-3100 if you would like to speak with someone about your case.