Anatomy of a Case: The General District Court Trial
In Part 1 of the "Anatomy of a Case" series, we showcased an overview of the Court System, generally, and why an attorney might advocate for taking a case to trial. In Part 2, we explained how to get the ball rolling in Virginia’s lower-level court, the GDC. Now, in Part 3 of our series, we march towards a Trial in the General District Court for a car accident case.
The Pleadings So Far:
As we discussed, the case is initiated with a Warrant in Debt, and then two pleadings are filed by the parties: a Plaintiff’s Bill of Particulars, and a Defendant’s Answer/Grounds of Defense. It is worth nothing, that each Defendant has to file one!
After these pleadings are filed, the parties are in limbo for the most part, as there is no Discovery in the General District Court. Discovery in Circuit Court involves such things as written questions called Interrogatories, document exchanges called Requests for Production, and Requests for Admissions, where each side can ask the other to admit the truth of certain points, or the veracity of documents.
In the GDC, however, there is none of this. That said, an attorney does still have a powerful tool, all the same: a subpoena.
Subpoenas are written instruments commanding someone to do something. Commonly, subpoenas are for documents - and at Blaszkow Legal, with more regularity, for video/camera footage. Did you know, for example, if you have a slip and fall at, say, Target, Target will refuse to provide the Plaintiff’s Attorney with the video footage of the incident? It is true - they say it is an internal policy. Our office’s procedure is to send a letter demanding that they preserve the footage until a subpoena can be generated. So, once a case is filed in GDC, we send a subpoena for that camera footage, and they are required to produce it.
Subpoenas are also used to obtain items from police files that are usually withheld. The Arlington County Police, for example, usually take statements from parties involved in car accidents. However, when these documents are released, usually pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, they are sometimes so heavily redacted as to be un-useable. In this instance, we subpoena the entire police file, and receive the un-redacted documents to introduce at trial.
The defense attorney can use subpoenas, too. Normally, they will subpoena medical records, including historical medical records, to ensure that a Plaintiff is not trying to claim some injury that was actually treated in the past.
Any subpoenaed party has the right to object by filing a Motion to Quash the subpoena.
One of the most beneficial aspects filing a case in the GDC is a procedure called the 16.1-88.2 (1) Notice. Formally, this is called the “Notice on Intent to Introduce Medical Records and Itemized Bills.” This procedure under Virginia law allows a Plaintiff to enter medical records, and also a doctor’s medical testimony (opinions) into evidence, without having that doctor actually come to court, to testify.
Why is that better? Because doctors charge for their time, like any professional. These fees can be significant, sometimes thousands of dollars for a day. That appearance fee would have to come out of a Plaintiff’s recovery, and can severely impact the amount of money a client walks away with.
This procedure, done through Affidavits, allows the doctors’ opinions to be entered into evidence at Trial, saving the client a good deal of money. If the client had multiple doctors, such as an orthopaedist and neurologist, these savings become rapidly more apparent!
The day of trial is often one of stress for a client, but as a client of Blaszkow Legal, you will be well prepared. Before coming to Court, our clients sit down with the attorney on their file at least once, usually twice, to prepare. Sometimes, we have other staff sit in to take the part of defense lawyers and judges, and go through mock-questioning, so the trial itself won’t be so daunting.
General District Court cases are called “Bench Trials,” meaning they are heard by a Judge. There is no jury. Both sides make their case to one man or woman, who is “the Court.”
The Trial begins with opening statements. The Plaintiff’s attorney goes first, and then the Defense. This is a summation of what each side will prove (or, for the Defense, disprove). You will often hear phrases like “The evidence will show....” or “we will prove....”
Once opening statements are concluded, the Plaintiff puts on his “case in chief,” meaning testimony and evidence proving 1) liability and 2) damages. In a car accident case where liability is disputed, many attorneys may call the responding police officer to testify as to what she saw when she arrived. The officer can also testify if the Defendant made any statements that admitted to fault, or the happening of the accident. While this normally “hearsay,” there are exceptions for “admissions against interest.”
Next, the Plaintiff’s attorney will usually call the Plaintiff to the stand to testify. This testimony will cover the accident itself, and the medical treatment after. Many questions will be asked to prove how the injuries the Plaintiff sustained affected his daily life and work life. Pictures may be entered into evidence as exhibits, as well medical records and bills to prove the Plaintiff’s damages (the monetary amount determined that the case is worth, usually medical bills, time lost from work, pain and suffering, etc).
If a Defendant has been issued a citation for the car accident, and has plead guilty or paid the fine (which is an admission), this can be admitted into evidence as well (2).
After each witness is examined by the Plaintiff’s attorney, the Defense attorney has a chance to cross-examine, meaning he may ask his own questions of the witness. The Plaintiff’s attorney then has one final chance to narrow down that testimony, or clarify points, through a “re-direct.”
Depending on the evidence, and the severity of the injuries, or other facts that need to come into evidence, the Plaintiff’s attorney may call other witnesses, as needed.
Once all of the witnesses have been examined, and evidence entered, the Plaintiff “rests”, or concludes his case. Now the Defense attorney can follow the same process to examine witnesses, re-examine those who already testified, and enter their own evidence. At the conclusion of this, the Defense then “rests.”
All evidence and testimony has been entered, and now both sides give their closing arguments. Plaintiff’s counsel speaks first, and then Defense. This, generally, is when the Defense lawyer speaks the longest, trying to highlight for the judge any problems that he finds in the case.
The judge then issues a ruling. This is done from the Bench, most of the time. The judge will set out if he finds for the Plaintiff, or the Defendant. Assuming he finds for the Plaintiff, the judge will issue an award of damages. Blaszkow Legal’s attorneys always ask for interest, as well as pre-judgment interest, as authorized by statute (meaning interest accrued from the date of the car accident, rather than from the date of the trial)(3).
Either party has the right to an appeal, if they wish. An appeal is “de novo,” or as a matter of right. From GDC, a case is appealed to the Circuit Court of the county. This is tantamount to a do-over. Sometimes Plaintiffs will appeal if the judgment is too low, and Defendants will appeal if the judgment is too high (which is more rare, due to insurance).
However, the right to appeal is not one to be mis-used, merely because a Plaintiff wants another $2,000. The costs have to be considered. Circuit Court cases are much longer, and far more expensive, as we’ll cover in the next installments.
If you have been involved in a car accident, or have any questions about Court, call Blaszkow Legal today: 703-879-5910
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(1) Admitting Medical Records: https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title16.1/chapter6/section16.1-88.2/
(2) Admission of Traffic Ticket: https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title8.01/chapter14/section8.01-418/
(3) Pre judgment interest: https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title6.2/chapter3/section6.2-302/