In a civil trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence to decide whether, by a “preponderance of the evidence,” the defendant should be held legally responsible for the damages alleged by the plaintiff. A trial is the plaintiff’s opportunity to argue his or her case, in the hope of obtaining a judgment against the defendant. A trial also represents the defendant’s chance to refute the plaintiff’s case, and to offer his or her own evidence related to the dispute at issue.
After both sides have presented their arguments, the judge or jury considers whether to find the defendant liable for the plaintiff’s claimed damages, and if so, to what extent (i.e. the amount of money damages a defendant must pay, or some other remedy). Depending on the type of case being heard, a civil trial may not necessarily focus only on the plaintiff’s allegations and the defendant’s liability. For example, in most divorce cases a trial judge reaches a decision after hearing allegations from both sides of the dispute, and enters a judgment that may favor one spouse on one issue (child custody), and the other spouse as to another issue (alimony).
A complete civil trial typically consists of six main phases:
- Choosing a Jury
- Opening Statements
- Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
- Closing Arguments
- Jury Instruction
- Jury Deliberation and Verdict