I’ve Won my Personal Injury Trial. Is My Case Over? Do the Defendants Have to Pay?
According to just about every television show or Hollywood movie ever made about a legal case of any kind (including personal injury cases), once a jury returns a verdict in favor of one party or another, the case is over. Many a famed courtroom drama has ended just after the jury delivers its verdict, with the final scene often depicting a cathartic and celebratory scene on the courthouse steps between the victorious lawyer and his or her clients. However, in this regard (as in many others), cinematic depictions of legal cases of all sorts are, to phrase it generously, inaccurate. In a real personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit, a jury verdict in favor of an injured plaintiff is very often not the end of the case. This is because, under the court systems of every state across the United States, including the Federal Courts of the United States, the losing party at trial has the right to “appeal” various aspects of a jury verdict against them to a higher court and request that the jury verdict be overturned. The post-verdict appeal process is extremely complicated, and to address all of the salient aspects of this process would require authorship of a textbook, rather than a blog post. In this article, we explore some very basic concepts pertaining to the post-verdict appeals process as applied to personal injury and medical malpractice cases in the state court system in New York. The reader is encouraged to take the following lesson from this article: The jury verdict is not the end of the story, as the appeals process is expensive and fraught with risk; thus, if possible, it is usually advisable to attempt to obtain a final settlement of a New York personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit (settlements cannot be appealed in almost every circumstance), rather than proceed through a jury verdict and an appeal.
In fact, the process by which a defendant who has lost at trial will begin to attempt to undermine, or totally destroy, a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff in a personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit usually begins just after the jury has delivered its verdict in court. After the jury returns its verdict, defense attorneys will usually make one, or all, of the following “motions” (requests for the court to take a particular action) with respect to the verdict: (i) to “direct” a verdict in favor of the defendant (i.e., to find that the evidence at trial indicated that the defendants should win, that the jury’s determination was wrong, and that the case should thus be decided by the judge in favor of the defense), (ii) to overturn the verdict as “against the weight of the evidence” and order a new trial (i.e., to find that the evidence at trial did not support the jury’s findings, and to order that the case be re-tried), (iii) to reduce the amount of damages awarded by the jury because those awarded are “excessive” and do not represent “reasonable compensation” for all, or any particular category of, damages awarded in the verdict, or (iv) to overturn the verdict due to some procedural defect that occurred during the trial and which prejudiced the jury against the defendants to such a degree that the final verdict was not fair. After the initial motions are made (usually, this is done orally in court just after the jury finishes reading its verdict), this process usually takes several months and involves the submission of written briefs by counsel for all parties on the issues raised by these “post-trial motions”.
Eventually, the trial court will make a decision on these post-trial motions; and, to be sure, the losing party (i.e., the plaintiff if the verdict is modified or overturned, or the defendants if the post-trial motions are denied) will request that an “appellate” court (a court sitting above the trial court, and which has the power to modify or reverse decisions made in the trial court) review the case and grant the appealing party relief from the decision of the trial court below. The appeals process is expensive and often takes years. The appealing party essentially asks the appellate court to review the case and grant any of the same relief requested to the trial court in the post-trial motions described above. The outcome of an appeal, no matter how well a case may have been tried before the trial court, is uncertain and fraught with risk. Every personal injury plaintiff should know that, while the post-trial motions and appeals are pending, the defendants do not have to pay any compensation no matter how much was awarded by the jury. Only upon entry of a final judgment, after the post-trial motions and appeals are decided on a final basis, is payment required, which may ultimately occur years after the jury has rendered its verdict. Also, the amounts which a defendant may be required to pay after this process may differ materially from what the jury awarded, as both the trial court and appellate courts have the power, in the right circumstances, to change the amount of compensation which was awarded by the jury (it can be reduced, or even increased in the right case), order that the jury verdict is invalid and thus that the case must be tried again, or dismiss the case in its entirety and thus order that no compensation whatsoever be paid to the plaintiff.
As one can see from the very basic explanation provided in this article, the jury verdict is not the end of a personal injury or medical malpractice case; and a long post-trial motion and appeals process awaits the victor at trial. For this reason, if at all possible, settlement is always advisable, as in almost every circumstance a settlement cannot be appealed, and payments of settlements are required to be made in short order after an agreement is reached, rather than years down the road.