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How Civil Lawsuits Work: After the Trial

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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How Civil Lawsuits Work: After the Trial

This document tells you the following:

  • What is an appeal?
  • How do you appeal the decision of the case?
  • What are the other ways to justice besides going to court?

APPEALING THE DECISION

In the trial of Mary Jones v. John Smith, the jury issued a verdict in favor of Mary Jones. Mary Jones, a pedestrian, was hit while crossing the street by John Smith, a driver. Mr. Hawkeye was a witness to the accident.

John and his lawyer, Ms. Bright, are not happy with the outcome of the case. Is there anything they can do about it?

If dissatisfied with the decision, either party in a civil case (and the defendant in a criminal case) may ask for an appeal. Then a higher or appellate court will review the decision of the trial court. The higher court may uphold or overturn (that is, reverse) the trial court decision.

An appeal, however, must be filed within a certain period of time after the trial court decision becomes final. Generally, appealing parties must state why they think something was wrong with the trial court decision. These reasons are called the grounds for appeal. They must involve questions of law.

An appealing party cannot argue that the trial court made the wrong decisions on the facts because the trier of fact's determination of the facts is final-a basic element of our legal system. The judge or jury is considered to be in the best position to evaluate the evidence, such as the testimony of a witness and how credible it appears to be. Only in extraordinary circumstances can the facts be reviewed.

There are, however, a number of acceptable grounds for appealing a case. The losing party may

  • challenge the manner in which the trial was conducted.
  • argue that the judge allowed irrelevant, prejudicial evidence to be presented.
  • argue that the wrong rule of law was applied by the court in declaring the rights and duties of the parties.
  • argue that no evidence was presented that supported the jury's findings.
  • although it rarely occurs, show that additional evidence has been discovered after the trial that would justify reconsidering the case at the trial level. The new evidence must clearly make a difference to the outcome of the trial. Also, it has to be something that could not have been discovered before the trial.

Suppose one of the following events had occurred in relation to the trial of Mary Jones v. John Smith. Would it have given grounds for appeal?

1. During the trial, the only witness for Mary was a woman. She testified that her cousin saw the accident and that John was clearly at fault.

2. Travis Eller returns from a trip around the world. He did not know about the trial. He says that he saw the accident. He says that John was driving very carefully and that Mary stepped in front of the car without looking.

3. Ms. Bright knew that Mr. Hawkeye had a grudge against John for something John did to Mr. Hawkeye's cousin. However, she did not reveal this information during the trial. She knew it could discredit Mr. Hawkeye's testimony, but she feared it would reflect poorly on John's character. She considers using it in an appeal of the case.

4. In the trial, Mary and John gave their versions of what happened. That was the only evidence in the trial. The jury believed and decided in favor of Mary.

Events 1 and 2 might result in review by an appellate court. The evidence in event 1 is hearsay evidence. It would be a question of law as to whether this evidence should have been allowed. In event 2, it would seem that Ms. Bright would not have any way of knowing about the witness until after the trial.

However, the evidence in event 3 was available to Ms. Bright at the time of the trial. She knew of the bias of the witness. She chose not to present it. It would not be valid grounds for appeal. Event 4 does not present valid grounds for appeal either. The decision of the jury was based on facts, not law. An appellate court will not reconsider it.

If the appellate court rejects the request for appeal, the decision of the trial court stands. If the appellate court hears the appeal, it can:

  • decide to let the trial court's decision stand,
  • reverse the trial court's decision, or
  • in a civil case, ask the trial court to rehear part or all of the trial.

If the case is sent back to the trial court, the parties may agree to settle out of court instead. Sometimes, the decision of an appellate court can be appealed to another appellate court.

OTHER WAYS TO ACHIEVE JUSTICE

Is a court trial like that of the case of Mary Jones and John Smith the best way to achieve justice? Is it the only way to resolve disputes?

Actually, most civil cases are settled before they reach trial. Frequently, the parties negotiate a solution to their dispute. Negotiation is a bargaining process in which both parties try to work out a mutually satisfactory solution. You may recall that Mr. Barr and the insurance adjuster tried to negotiate a solution to this case.

In Georgia and throughout the United States, courts and individuals are turning more often to alternatives to the legal process to settle disputes. Generally, these new processes are re-ferred to as alternative dispute resolution (ADR). In fact, some courts are even ordering parties to attempt to resolve their dispute - using ADR before they can bring their case to trial in the courts.

Most of these alternative processes are gaining popularity in this country for several reasons. They are often less expensive alternatives to litigation. They are also generally faster than litigation, and they often achieve a more fair and equitable result than litigation. The two most common forms of ADR are arbitration and mediation.

In arbitration, disagreeing sides agree to have a neutral third party (called an arbitrator) hear their arguments and settle their dispute. Parties agree in advance as to whether they will accept the arbitrator's decision as final.

In mediation, parties also ask someone else to help settle their dispute. However, the mediator does not make the decision; rather, he or she guides the two parties as they work out their own decision.

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase at www.cviog.uga.eduor by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

 

Last Review and Update: Jun 15, 2005