A trial is the plaintiff's opportunity to present evidence that supports the claims made against the defendant. A trial also represents the defendant's chance to refute the plaintiff's claims, and to offer his or her own evidence related to the dispute at issue.

In a civil trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence to decide whether the defendant should be held legally responsible for the claims alleged by the plaintiff. To meet the burden of proof, the plaintiff must prove his or her case by a greater weight of evidence. Simply put, this means that the plaintiff will win if he or she has more evidence than the defendant.

A trial is the most high profile phase of the lawsuit process. However, the vast majority of disputes are resolved well before trial and in some cases before a lawsuit is even filed via settlement negotiations between the parties, alternative dispute resolution processes like arbitration and mediation, or through dismissal of the case. A trial typically consists of six main phases.

Choosing a Jury

One of the first steps in a jury trial is the selection of a jury. During jury selection, the judge and the attorneys will question a pool of potential jurors generally and as to matters pertaining to the particular case. Jurors will be asked how their personal ideologies or life experiences may effect their ability to remain impartial in light of the facts of that particular case. The plaintiff and the defendant may exclude a limited number of jurors through use of "peremptory challenges." A peremptory challenge can be used to exclude a juror for any reason that is not based upon the potential jurors race or gender. The plaintiff and defendant also have unlimited challenges "for cause." A challenge for cause can be used to exclude a juror who has shown that he or she cannot be impartial in deciding the case.

Opening Statements

Once a jury is selected, the judge will welcome the jury and tell them what to expect during the coming trial. Afterwards, the attorneys for each party will have the opportunity to give opening statements before the jury. No witnesses testify and physical evidence is not generally used.

To prevail at trial, the plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant's legal liability for the plaintiff's injuries. As such, the plaintiff's opening statement is usually given first, and is often more detailed than that of the defendant. The plaintiff will present the facts of the case and the defendant's alleged role in causing the plaintiff's damages. Afterwards, the defendant's attorney gives his interpretation of the facts and sets the stage for attacking the plaintiff's key evidence. In some cases, the defendant may even wait until the conclusion of the plaintiff's main case before making his opening statement.

Witness Testimony and Cross Examination

The main component of a jury trial is called the "case in chief." During this phase of the trial each party presents their key evidence and arguments to the jury. The plaintiff will methodically set forth evidence in an attempt to convince the jury that the defendant is legally responsible for the plaintiff's injuries and damages. The plaintiff may call witnesses and experts to testify and may also introduce physical evidence, such as photographs, documents, and medical reports.

After the plaintiff concludes its case in chief the defendant can present his own evidence. The defense may call witnesses to the stand, and can present any evidence in an effort to refute or downplay the key elements of the plaintiff's legal allegations.

Once the plaintiff and defendant have had an opportunity to present their case and to challenge the evidence presented by the other, both sides "rest," meaning that no more evidence will be presented to the jury before closing arguments.

Closing Arguments

Similar to the opening statement, the closing argument offers the plaintiff and the defendant a chance to summarize their respective cases. This is the final chance for the parties to address the jury prior to deliberations. In closing arguments the plaintiff seeks to show why the evidence requires the jury to find the defendant legally responsible for the plaintiff's injuries while the defendant tries to show that the plaintiff has fallen short of proving the defendant's liability.

Jury Instruction

After closing arguments the judge will instruct the jury on the set of legal standards it must follow in order to decide whether the defendant should be held accountable for the plaintiff's alleged harm.

The judge decides what legal standards should apply to the defendant's case based on the claims at issue and the evidence presented during the trial. Often, this process takes place with input and argument from both the plaintiff and the defendant. The judge then instructs the jury on those relevant legal principles decided upon, including findings the jury will need to make in order to arrive at certain conclusions. The judge also describes key concepts and defines any specific claims that the jury may consider. Finally, the judge will discuss the different types of damages available to the plaintiff based on the evidence presented at trial.

Jury Deliberation and Verdict

After receiving their instructions from the judge, the jurors consider the case through a process called "deliberation." During this process the jurors attempt to agree on whether the defendant should be held liable for the plaintiff's claimed injuries, and if so, the appropriate compensation for those injuries. Deliberation is the first opportunity for the jury to discuss the case and can last from a few hours to several weeks. Once the jury reaches a decision, the jury foreperson informs the judge, and the judge usually announces the verdict in open court.