When a personal injury case goes to trial, there are a variety of people who are going to get up on the stand and give statements or answer questions in front of the jury. A witness might have been involved in or present for the accident, or sometimes, might not have any direct correlation to the accident at all. Instead, they might be able to provide personal or professional insights into the victim’s life that could be beneficial for the jury to know. And in many cases of non-criminal personal injury, the plaintiff and defendant may even take the stand on their own behalf. This being the case, it’s important to understand how the process of providing testimony works.
The Different Types of Witnesses in a Trial
Three different types of witnesses can be called to testify in a trial: eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, and lay witnesses (also sometimes referred to as character witnesses). All three types are important to any personal injury case.
An eyewitness is someone who can provide a first-hand account of the accident because they were present at the scene and observed it occur. This could include a bystander, a passenger in one of the vehicles involved, or even the people directly involved in the accident (the plaintiff and defendant). Some eyewitness accounts tend to come with a bit of controversy around them because everyone’s account of an event—accident or not—tends to be a little different. On top of that, when enough time passes, as tends to happen when cases work their way to a trial, a person’s memory of what they saw may morph, which can make their testimony contradictory or hard to follow. This is why it’s so important to have multiple types of witnesses in every case.
An expert witness is someone who is deemed a qualified expert by their knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education in a certain field related to the case at hand. Though they may have nothing to do with the accident itself, these experts are often able to provide valuable, factual information about the case in some regard. Such expert witnesses might include people like doctors who are particularly knowledgeable about the injuries suffered, cognitive therapists who can speak on what recovering from the injury looks like for the victim, or even accident recreation experts who can explain how the initial accident led to the injury.
For such a witness to be approved to appear in court, their professional insight must be deemed necessary for the jury to have in order to make their decision. You always want the jury to interpret evidence on its own and draw unbiased conclusions based on widely-accepted facts and data, and expert witnesses are meant to help them achieve that.
In many ways, a lay witness is the opposite of an expert witness. Whereas an expert witness will usually have no personal connection to the victim or knowledge about their personal life, a lay witness is expected to have and speak on this personal insight about the victim. Most often, a lay witness at least personally knew the victim before the accident occurred. The most common and often most useful lay witnesses both knew the victim before the accident as well as have interacted with them after the accident. Their testimony is based on their rational perception of the victim and the way their life or behavior might have changed after suffering their injury. Lay witnesses can often include family members or close friends of the victim.
Why Witness Testimony is Important
Witness testimony usually makes up the bulk of any personal injury case because there can be so many witnesses to hear testimony from, as well as several rounds of questioning for each witness. But it’s important to make sure all types of witnesses necessary to your case get the time on the stand they need because the words they say can be some of the most persuasive for the jury for several reasons:
- Corroboration: Witness testimony can help corroborate—or confirm and support—the injured person’s version of events. This is especially important when a personal injury case has gone all the way to trial because that usually means the events have been heavily disputed by the defendant. In other words, it has become a game of “their word versus yours,” so you want as much reliable corroboration as you can get during the trial.
- Credibility: Similar to corroboration, certain witness testimony can help establish the credibility of the injured person’s account of what happened. Eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, and lay witnesses all have the ability to lend credibility to the person they have come to court to speak on behalf of.
- Expertise: Expert witnesses specifically can provide useful insight into the cause and extent of injuries and other damages suffered, lending even more credibility to what other witnesses or even the plaintiff themselves might be claiming.
- Damages: Witnesses can provide testimony about the impact the injury has had on the plaintiff’s life, such as the cost of medical treatments, their inability to work, or the pain and suffering they’ve endured. This kind of testimony can be crucial for helping the jury to determine the amount of damages the plaintiff is entitled to receive.
Witness testimony is important because, when combined with the evidence gathered and presented as part of your case, it has the ability to weave a detailed story or picture for the jury of exactly what happened during the accident and what the results were. This, in turn, gives the jury the detailed information they need to hopefully make an ultimate decision in your favor.
How Witnesses are Selected and Prepared for Trial
How each witness in your case is selected is dependent upon the type of witness they will be. When it comes to eyewitnesses, these tend to be the most straightforward, as they almost exclusively consist of people who witnessed or were involved in the actual event that led to the injury. Depending on how involved these witnesses were in the accident, your attorney may provide them with the list of questions they intend to ask ahead of time in an effort to prepare them for what to expect. If you, as the plaintiff, will be taking the stand in your own case, your attorney will absolutely work with you well ahead of that time to pose and practice the questions you’ll be answering.
Expert witnesses are professionals who are often vetted and selected through a law firm’s vast connections and after doing intricate research into the value they can provide and the credentials they come with. To prepare, they will be given the information about the case that is necessary for them to know in order to provide their testimony, such as medical reports in the case of a doctor. And in an effort to keep expert witnesses as unbiased as possible, they may often be paid for the time and effort they spend on getting to know the case, learning about the victim’s accident or injuries, and going through the process of testifying.
Lay witnesses may involve less research or scrutiny to locate but often require much more preparation in order to make sure their testimony is successful. This is primarily because of their often uniquely personal connection to the plaintiff. It can be difficult for someone who knows the victim on a personal level to speak about that person in an unbiased manner or without emotion swaying their testimony. Similarly, it can be difficult for the victim to hear a close person talk about how they’ve changed. As such, these witnesses may sometimes have their interviews conducted prior to the trial to play for the jury in lieu of live testimony. There are also many more extensive laws and regulations surrounding how a lay witness can be questioned, as well as how they are permitted to answer questions.
Cross Examination of Witnesses
Cross-examination is the process in a trial whereby the opposing party’s counsel has the opportunity to also question a witness who has testified. In other words, it will not just be your own lawyer asking you or other witnesses questions on the stand, but the defendant’s legal team is also entitled to the opportunity to ask their own questions as well. Then it may even be followed by a re-direct examination, during which time your own attorney will follow up with any questions that may have arisen from the opposing counsel’s questioning.
Cross-examination is one of the hardest parts of being a witness in a trial because you can never quite know what the defendant’s legal team will ask. Though your own lawyer will prepare you as best they can with their own questions and coach you in the best way to answer them (while of course, making sure you are always adhering to the truth of what happened). But your lawyer does not know precisely what the opposing counsel plans to ask, and so can only prepare you to the best of their abilities based on their past knowledge and experience.
The goal of cross-examination—by both sides—is to double-check or often discredit the witness’s testimony, knowledge, or credibility. For this reason, it’s often in a witness’s best interest to provide as little information as possible during cross-examination while still fully answering the attorney’s questions (so as not to go into contempt of court). Simple answers of “yes” or “no” are always preferable, but if more clarification must be given, it’s important to not ramble or divulge more than necessary. The more information provided to opposing counsel, the more ammunition they have to use in an effort to discredit a witness.
Giving testimony in a trial can be nerve-wracking, but with the proper preparation and expectations provided by your legal counsel, you will be able to successfully share your experience and insights to show the jury that you are entitled to be rewarded the damages you seek.
If you’ve experienced a personal injury, the process of seeking representation can seem overwhelming. That’s why our team at 314-293-4222 is dedicated to simplifying the process for you. We’re here to provide a free consultation to evaluate the details of your case and determine how we can best support you. Our experienced attorneys have a track record of success in personal injury cases and can provide the guidance you need to navigate the legal system. Our goal is to take the burden off your shoulders so you can focus on healing and moving forward. Give us a call today to schedule a consultation and take the first step toward receiving the representation you deserve.