Getting involved in a legal dispute – whether civil or criminal, no matter the size – can be confusing and stressful. It’s natural to want a quick resolution. It’s natural to want to win. However, it is also important to understand what the judge and/or jury will be relying on in deciding who wins, and to understand your chances of success ahead of time.
Law vs. fact
Nearly every trial involved disputed questions of fact – was the defendant driving while impaired by alcohol? Which party’s negligence caused the motor vehicle collision? What was the dollar amount of damages caused to the plaintiff? These issues will be decided by the “finder of fact” – either the jury, or the judge if there is no jury. Parties, and their attorneys, can present evidence, such as witness testimony or exhibits, supporting their positions on the facts. The ultimate determination, however, will be made by the jury (or judge). This determination will be made at or after the trial, which may be months or even years after a lawsuit is filed.
If there are no significant factual disputes, it may be possible for a court to decide a case before trial. However, this is the exception, not the norm.
Some trials also involve disputed legal issues. However, the law applicable to a particular situation is often fairly well established, and often the most significant questions for trial are over what occurred factually.
Elements of proof
Nearly every trial involves specific legal claims, which in turn have specific elements. Personal injury lawsuits, for example, often include a claim for negligence – it may even be the only claim. To win on a negligence claim, the injured party needs to establish:
- that the defendant owed a duty (such as a general duty to not drive negligently);
- that the defendant breached that duty;
- that the plaintiff suffered harm; and
- that the defendant’s breach caused the plaintiff’s harm.
For a plaintiff to win at trial on a negligence claim, the jury generally needs to find that the factual evidence presented supports each of the above legal elements. In a civil case, the findings generally need to be by a “preponderance of the evidence” – 51% or more – as compared to a criminal case where the findings generally need to be beyond a reasonable doubt to support a conviction.
The importance of evidence
As the above may suggest, trials are often won by having better factual evidence than the other side. If a DUI suspect crashes her vehicle in to someone’s living room and gives a blood test that shows a BAC four times the legal limit, the prosecution will probably win at trial because it has overwhelming factual evidence. In less lopsided situations, the side that wins at trial may have won because it spent more time and effort investigating and understanding the facts before trial.
If you are involved in a lawsuit and hire an attorney, it is important to fully answer your attorney’s questions. This will allow him or her to present as much factual evidence in your support as possible, and to confront harmful facts in the best possible way. Unfortunately, trials are usually not won by winning the judge’s sympathy, by novel legal arguments, or by opposing parties slipping up on the witness stand. Rather, hard work and thorough investigation of the facts is often the best way to maximize the chance of winning at trial.