The typical docket track in North Carolina is eight to fourteen months. If suit is filed today, this is the amount of time plaintiffs would expect to wait before they actually have their court date and jury trial. As noted above, the early phase of litigation is the discovery phase where the parties are able to investigate all claims and demand disclosure of documents, written answers, and verbal answers from other parties and outside witnesses.
Once the trial date arrives, discovery and case preparation are complete and the case enters the courtroom. The following are the three phases of a typical jury trial in North Carolina
Phase 1: Voir Dire—Jury selection
Voir dire is the legal title of the jury selection process. While the parties may agree to allow the juries to decide all issues through a bench trial without a jury, a jury trial is available in every personal injury case at the request of either party. N.C.R.C.P. 38 and 39 govern the right to a jury trial in a civil case. N.C.G.S. 9-3 governs qualification of jurors and describes those citizens who cannot sit on a jury in North Carolina.
The jury selection process is a question-and-answer session conducted first by the presiding judge and then by the attorneys for each party. The presiding judge makes inquiry to eliminate those jurors who are not qualified to serve. The party’s inquiries are made to identify potential jurors who may be biased, interested in the action, or familiar with the litigants. The goal for each side is to identify an unbiased, receptive jury who will decide the case fairly.
Phase 2: Presentation of Evidence and Trial
Once the jury is seated and sworn, the actual trial begins. The jury’s sole function is to hear the evidence and determine the facts. In practice, the plaintiff begins the presentation of evidence. Plaintiff’s counsel will call witnesses one at a time and, through their testimony and through admission of documentary evidence and other exhibits, provide the jury with evidence that supports the plaintiff’s version of the facts. Because the plaintiff has the burden of proof in all injury cases, the accident victim must provide all essential evidence to construct the prima facie case on each required element of every legal claim and on the full amount of all damages sought. If the plaintiff fails to provide necessary evidence, the defense will make a motion at the conclusion of plaintiff’s case seeking dismissal of some or all of the plaintiff’s claims. After the plaintiff’s case is closed, the defense then takes control of the trial and offers evidence to support their version of all contested facts.
The trial begins with opening arguments from both sides. Thereafter, each side takes turns presenting their evidence to the jury. After all evidence is admitted, the parties then present closing arguments. The judge then takes over and reads all instructions to the jury before they retire to decide the case.
Opening and closing arguments are typically the most compelling portion of a trial. The evidentiary phase is typically less dramatic and certainly nothing like what most of us see on television or in movies. The opening argument is limited to a description and forecast provided by each party’s counsel of the evidence they expect to present at trial. The closing argument is far more dramatic. Here, parties and attorneys add argument and color to the facts and evidence. In the closing argument, attorneys hope to compel jurors to consider highlighted evidence, to apply evidence to the applicable law, and to reach a verdict in their favor.
Phase 3: Deliberation and Verdict
Jury deliberations are private, privileged, and protected. Once the case goes to the jury, the consideration of the value of the plaintiff’s claims lies exclusively with selected jurors. The parties are free to negotiate a settlement during deliberations. However, once a jury reaches a decision on legal liability and case value, their verdict is read in open court and converted to judgment from the bench. The jury’s verdict and judgment are the final word on your case. Appeals are only allowed in personal injury cases where significant error is made by the presiding judge in the evidentiary decisions, in the conduct of the proceedings, or in the instructions to jurors.
During deliberations, jurors are not allowed to follow news of the trial, discuss the trial with outsiders, or to speak with parties or attorneys. If they have questions about the evidence or about procedure, procedural rules allow them to bring these to the court’s attention and secure answers to facilitate their decision. Once a unanimous verdict is reached, the foreperson who leads the jury will advise the clerk, the judge will recommence the trial proceedings, and the verdict will be read in open court.
Following publication of the verdict, the court will hear motions from both parties concerning the content and effect of judgment. Under North Carolina law, the prevailing plaintiff is entitled to prejudgment interest. The current rate is 8 percent interest, and this amount accrues from the date suit is filed until the date of verdict and judgment. The court will automatically add this amount to the jury’s verdict for the benefit of the plaintiff. The prevailing plaintiff may also file a motion asking the court for an award of costs. This is entirely within the judge’s discretion. However, in some cases, the defendant is held to pay for the plaintiff’s full verdict, and they also are taxed with all of the trial expenses incurred by the plaintiff to conduct the successful trial.
Once the presiding judge signs the order, the plaintiff has a valid and enforceable judgment. At this point, insurance carriers have an actual contractual obligation to pay the plaintiff’s judgment in full or to pay the applicable policy limits if the verdict and judgment exceed insurance coverage. If the available insurance is insufficient to pay the trial award, the prevailing plaintiff may then seek to collect the excess judgment by levy against the defendant’s personal assets and by filing the judgment to perfect a lien against all real estate owned by the defendant.