Trying a Personal Injury Case in Court: Washington State
A good personal injury attorney will attempt to settle your case out of court or with arbitration but sometimes it will be necessary to try a case in court. Every state has laws governing the way it handles cases and it is beneficial to understand some basics including how a jury awards damages in your state.
In Washington State, two levels of courts are used for Personal Injury cases. The district court level handles Personal Injury cases worth less than $50,000 and the superior court level handles Personal Injury cases worth more than $50,000.
The right to a jury trial in Washington State
In Washington State defendants have a right to a jury trial. The accused has the right to a trial by an impartial jury from the state and district in which the incident allegedly occurred.
Reviewing the evidence in an injury case
Most jurors pay reasonably close attention to the evidence during the trial and most courts now allow jurors to take notes during the trial.
When deliberations begin in the jury room after the trial, jurors will usually review the evidence quite closely with each other. They cannot have a transcript of the testimony; they must rely on their memories and their notes, but they are allowed to have all of the trial exhibits with them. They will usually discuss the evidence until they are all satisfied that they have a good handle on how the accident happened.
In an relatively straightforward case, that could take less than an hour, but, in a more complex case, that could take days. After they have figured out the facts, the jurors will turn to the law.
Personal Injury Damages
The Jury “calculates” a personal injury award by placing a dollar amount on several areas of loss or suffering. They will follow instructions provided by the judge and apply the law to the case.
Common personal injury damages:
- Reimbursement for medical treatment
- Reimbursement for lost wages
- Reimbursement for damage to or loss of use of property that occurred as a result of the injury
- Money for loss of consortium (loss of income, companionship, child care, etc. from your spouse due to their injury)
- Money for emotional distress and/or pain and suffering
- Injury to personal reputation
- Punitive damages (money given as punishment)*
*Washington does not allow punitive damages
Punitive damages, sometimes called exemplary damages, are awarded by a court as a punishment to the wrongdoer. This type of damage is meant to serve as a deterrent to others from engaging in the same wrongful actions. Punitive damages are sometimes awarded in special cases when someone commits an act that is particularly wanton, malicious, evil, violent, or fraudulent. In Washington State, punitive damages are not typically awarded; however, there are numerous statutory exceptions where punitive damages may be allowed.
Jury instructions vs. emotional appeal
Judges provide length jury instructions, generally at the end of the trial. Instructions are always given orally but many judges now also provide a copy of the instructions in writing. These instructions are in depth, and cover everything from how jurors should deliberate to how they should analyze the witnesses and the evidence, and then explain the law of the case in detail. Judges makes it clear that the jury must reach a decision based strictly on the law even if they don’t like or agree with the law; they must not be swayed by emotion. When appellate courts review jury verdicts they do so under the assumption that jurors made their decision by applying the law as the judge explained it to them, rather than using their emotions.
In the case of Personal Injury trial, the judge will explain the law of negligence in general, and then offer a specific explanation of the laws that apply to that trial. If, for example, the trial is about an injury that happened at work, the judge will explain the law around work place accidents.
How emotional appeal is created
Despite instructions to follow the law and not use emotions, it is inevitable that jurors will be influenced by their emotions; at least a little. Plaintiffs’ lawyers understand human nature and recognize that if their case contains a strong emotional appeal to the jury, they have a better chance of winning.
The following types of evidence are known to create an emotional appeal to a jury:
- a friendly, pleasant plaintiff with a good family
- pictures of the injury (without being overly graphic or gratuitous)
- a serious, permanent injury (juries typically award more money for a devastating permanent injury such as quadriplegia than for a wrongful death case)
- an injury to a child
- proof that the defendant or the defendant’s witnesses lied about how the accident happened, or that they tried to cover up how their negligence caused the injury
Defense attorneys prefer to stay away from trying cases with strong emotional appeals because they know that juries are usually influenced by these appeals and will often give large awards.
How do jurors quantify pain and suffering?
Medical bills and lost earnings are calculated fairly easily but other damages can be more difficult to quantify. Putting a number on someone’s pain and suffering is often one of the more difficult tasks facing a jury, especially because judges don’t usually go into much detail about how the jury should determine damages for pain and suffering. Jurors must draw on their own perspective to imagine how they would feel if someone negligently did to them what the defendant did to the plaintiff. They will choose a dollar amount based on how much money they would want if they had the same injuries as the plaintiff and then reach a consensus among themselves, and that will be their verdict.
Documents to Submit to your Personal Injury Lawyer
The more complete the information you provide, the better your personal injury lawyer will be able to help. When you arrive for your consultation try to have as much of this information gathered as you can:
For a car accident:
- details of your vehicle, insurance, and driver’s license
- All relevant details of the accident such as the date, time, and place; weather and traffic conditions; information about other passengers, drivers and their vehicles; names and contact information for witnesses; copies of accident or incident reports; tickets written at the scene and any charges issued to drivers involved such as reckless driving or DUI.
For all accidents:
- Physician reports and any subsequent medical records in relation to the accident
- Copies of x-rays and test results for injuries related to the accident
- Bring information about any pre-existing conditions or injuries that were exacerbated by the accident
- Receipts for medical expenses from the accident including medications, treatments, and therapies
- Receipts for any other expenses incurred due to the accident
- Documentation from your employer about days, hours and wages lost because of the accident
- Copies of any correspondence with insurance companies in regard to the accident
- Any notes you have made about your feelings and physical condition after the accident
Disclaimer: State and federal laws in the United States change on a regular basis. Any information provided in this guide is meant solely for informational purposes and should not take the place of the advice of a lawyer. Only a qualified attorney can assess the merits of your case and provide an effective plan for counsel.
If you or a loved one is dealing with an accident or injury, you have enough on your plate. Let an experienced accident attorney fight for the full compensation that you deserve. It is not uncommon to receive a settlement from the insurance company that is five to ten times bigger with the help of a lawyer. Call the caring accident attorneys at Tario & Associates, P.S. in Bellingham, WA today for a FREE consultation! We have been representing residents of Whatcom County, Skagit County and surrounding areas since 1979. You will pay nothing up front and no attorney fees at all unless we recover damages for you!