You’ve likely seen depictions of a trial on TV. Whether it was Court TV or a movie like “A Few Good Men,” you get a sense of what goes on in a courtroom between the attorneys, judge, and jury: the tense interactions at the judge’s bench, the dramatic moment when a witness is cross-examined, and terms like “hearsay” and “admissible evidence.” These terms play a very important role in determining what can and cannot be used in a trial.
These terms fall under the rules of evidence: the governing rules for what evidence can be introduced in a trial. It’s what you often see on a show like Law and Order SVU — some startling new evidence is uncovered, but it’s inadmissible. For example, if a client falls on a sidewalk, and afterward, the sidewalk is repaired by the company who owns it, the fact that it was fixed can’t be introduced in court — it’s inadmissible evidence.
That might sound unfair, but there are reasons behind this rule. For one, it could discourage companies from making repairs after an accident if they think it might cause a court to find them at fault. And contrary to what we often see in the media, just because someone gets hurt on someone else’s premises doesn’t mean they’re legally responsible. There are laws in place that determine whether or not a company or individual is liable.
Hearsay is a statement made by someone other than the person testifying. A witness might say, “Joe told me that the light was green.” That’s hearsay. Some hearsay is admissible in court, and some isn’t. Testimony about what someone else said for the purpose of proving its truth is considered inadmissible hearsay. That testimony must come from the person who has direct knowledge of its truth.
An example that comes up in most of my cases is this one: Say a doctor told you that you’re going to have pain for the rest of your life due to your accident. If you were to testify about this in court, it’s considered inadmissible hearsay — it’s just based on what someone else said. You would need to bring in the doctor to testify, in order for that evidence to become admissible.
Jury selection is also a crucial part of a trial. In a civil case, you have six jurors, and 12 in a criminal case. You’re looking for people who can be objective, fair, and impartial — people who don’t come in with predisposed bias either for or against your client. If your client is an 85-year-old man, for example, you don’t want jurors who are going to dismiss him because he’s elderly. If your client is Muslim, you wouldn’t want people who are biased against him on that basis.
Of course, you can’t always get into someone’s head. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling about a person; sometimes it’s the way they’ve answered a question or the rapport you think you might have with that juror.
There’s inevitably some subjectivity. But before the jury selection, you come up with personas of what your ideal jurors would look like — it all depends on the case. We’re looking for people who will not only be impartial but will relate to our client and see them as a person. Sometimes, the first six people who walk into the courtroom can be the right people — though I’ve never tried a case where I’ve accepted the first six.
In court, I enjoy the opportunity to use my analytical skills and cross-examine a witness when there’s something really good to examine — for example, when I suspect the witness is lying, or that they don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s a sense of uncovering hidden information that I take satisfaction in. In many personal injury cases, the insurance company will have my client examined by another doctor, and they call it an independent medical exam, when it really isn’t. The first question I ask when I cross-examine that doctor is, “This wasn’t an independent medical exam at all, was it? Wasn’t it really a defense exam since they hired you to conduct the exam?” Usually there’s a bit of back and-forth until I show that the exam wasn’t actually independent at all.
At the end of the day, my number one job is to be an advocate for my client within the rules of evidence. Everyone else has opposing interests; everyone is there to advocate for someone, I’m there for my client.