How Judges Decide What Evidence Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Trail Juries Can See

A personal injury or wrongful death jury trial comes at the end of a long process of negotiation, depositions and, usually, a series of pretrial hearings regarding who can testify and what evidence can be shared with jurors. Whether the case involves a truck crash, a slip and fall, a defective product or a surgical error, presenting medical evidence regarding the cause and severity of the plaintiff’s injuries will be extremely important.

Attorneys for the insurance company and the individuals or companies named as defendants will argue for excluding as much evidence as possible. The lawyer for the personal injury or wrongful death plaintiff will ask to have a large amount of evidence admitted. So, how does the judge in the case decide what jurors can and cannot consider?

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Judges rule on the admissibility of evidence by following precedents set by state and federal appeals courts. In federal courts, judges also follow  guidelines spelled out in the Federal Rules of Evidence. State courts in Virginia and North Carolina have similar rulebboks to closely mirror the federl one.

Thousands of court rulings exist, and each concerns a very specific question. Summarizing court ruling on evidence in a single article would be impossible, An experienced and knowledgeable personal injury and wrongful death attorney will know how to research a given issue and find the information that best makes the argument for admitting a particular piece of evidence that supports his client.

Once determinations are made about the types of evidence that can be presented during a trial, further questions arise over how attorneys may show that evidence. Here, judges follow Rule 611(a) of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which states,

The court should exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of examining witnesses and presenting evidence so as to:

  1. make those procedures effective for determining the truth;
  2. avoid wasting time; and
  3. protect witnesses from harassment or undue embarrassment.

Generally, sharing evidence with the opposing attorneys before the trial and sticking to the advice on demonstrative evidence that is shared in the American Bar Association’s Civil Trial Practice Standards will keep a lawyer in compliance with Rule 611(a) and the equivalent state rule. According to the ABA,

Generally, “[c]ourts look favorably upon the use of demonstrative evidence because it helps the jury understand the issues raised at trial.” People v. Burrows, 148 Ill. App. 3d 208, 213, 498 N.E.2d 682 (1986). See also Hon. William W. Schwarzer, Reforming Jury Trials, 132 F.R.D. 575, 588 (1990) (“Much evidence becomes more comprehensible when presented with visual aids, such as a chart summarizing data, a chronology, an enlarged picture of an object, a diagram of a building, or a map.”). Exercising powers such as those codified in Federal Rule of Evidence 611(a), which most states have adopted (2 Joseph & Saltzburg, EVIDENCE IN AMERICA:THE FEDERAL RULES IN THE STATES §§ 45.2-45.3 (Supp. 1994)), the court should encourage counsel to package information in the most concise and understandable format. At the same time, because the reduction of voluminous or complicated data into demonstrative form can be expensive, the court should provide a requesting party with a preliminary ruling or at least parameters of admissibility before substantial expense is incurred. This subdivision reflects the view set forth in the Federal Judicial Center's MANUAL FOR COMPLEX LITIGATION 4th §§ 12.31, 12.32 (2004), and in American Bar Association Section of Litigation/Brookings Institution symposium report, CHARTING A FUTURE FOR THE CIVIL JURY SYSTEM 22 (1992).

Further, while actually presenting evidence in a courtroom, an attorney must be careful to ensure that an exhibit such as a chart or video

  • Does not violate any substantive rule of evidence,
  • Has relevance to the argument being made, and
  • Illustrates the argument fairly and accurately.

A Look at Presenting Evidence During a Courtroom Trial

Here is how one of our Virginia personal injury lawyers might use a medical illustration while conducting a jury trial.

Shapiro & Appleton: Doctor, let me show you what we have marked as Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1. Did you actually review this prior to your deposition?

Witness: Yes, I did.

S&A: Is it reasonably anatomically correct?

Witness: Yes.

S&A: Was it prepared for your review by a medical illustrator?

Witness: Apparently, yes. In fact, this illustration is quite good.

S&A: Will it assist you in helping us understand the injuries suffered by John Doe as a result of the automobile crash he was in last January?

Witness: Yes, I think it will.

S&A: Will this drawing also help us understand the surgeries you performed?

Witness: Yes, this drawing will really help me explain my surgical technique.

S&A: Your honor, we offer Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1.

Defense Attorney: Your honor, Plaintiff’s counsel created that drawing with an illustrator, and the doctor apparently reviewed it later after it was done. We object to this. It was created by counsel's efforts.

Judge: The objection is overruled. Admitted.

Keep in mind that rules of evidence apply to everything done during a civil personal injury or wrongful death trial, from introducing evidence to presenting demonstrative exhibits and examining witnesses. For this reason, it is important to retain a personal injury attorney who has successfully handled dozens of federal and state trials.

EJL

Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia