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How Trials Work

For most people, trial is the most familiar stage of litigation. Yet, a relatively small percentage of cases actually reach the trial stage. A trial is the formal process of bringing a legal action before a judge or jury to obtain a judgment or verdict on the issues.

This article provides an overview of the stages of a trial. If you are considering filing a lawsuit or if you have been sued and have questions about the trial process, talk to a litigation attorney at The Law Firm of Peters & Wasilefski. Based in Harrisburg, we serve throughout south central Pennsylvania.

Voir Dire (Jury Selection)

Voir dire, the process of interviewing and selecting a jury, provides the judge and attorneys an opportunity to question potential jurors. Each attorney is allowed to challenge, or strike, a potential juror, but must provide a stated reason for the challenge (such as bias). In addition, a limited number of peremptory strikes are allowed for each party. Peremptory strikes allow an attorney to object to, or strike, a potential juror without providing a stated reason.

The purpose of voir dire is to provide a panel of jurors who are capable of rendering a fair and impartial verdict for the case. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 48 specifies that there should be between 6 and 12 jurors in federal cases, but the number of jurors may be different depending on the state or jurisdiction.

Opening Statements

Each attorney has the opportunity to present an opening statement to the jury. During the opening statement, each side provides the jury with an outline of the facts of the case. The attorneys can provide an explanation of the issues involved and the facts that they intend to prove. However, the opening statements are not considered evidence and may be presented in a persuasive manner, but they generally must still be limited to the issues involved in the case.

Presentation Of Evidence

In a civil case, the plaintiff presents evidence first. Generally, the evidence includes witness testimony, documents and other exhibits (such as photographs, charts or objects). The judge, who uses the rules of evidence for the jurisdiction in which the case is heard, initially decides whether evidence is admitted during the trial. Generally, evidence will be allowed if it is relevant and not unfairly prejudicial.

Witness Testimony

There are two types of witnesses. General or lay witnesses can testify to what they directly heard or saw, while expert witnesses have a specialized knowledge in a particular field and can give opinions based on the evidence presented in the case. When a witness is called to testify, the witness is required to take an oath to tell the truth before answering questions from the attorneys. The attorney who calls the witness will question, or examine, the witness first. Then, opposing counsel may question, or cross-examine, the witness.

During the presentation of evidence, the attorneys are allowed to object, based on the rules of evidence. The judge can sustain the objection (meaning the objection is warranted) or overrule it (meaning the objection is denied). The attorneys may object to questions asked by opposing counsel and answers given by the witnesses, along with the relevancy of any other evidence presented.

Closing Arguments

When all of the evidence has been presented, the attorneys have the opportunity to clarify points and summarize the case for the jury. This is called the closing argument. Similar to the opening argument, the closing argument must be limited to the issues of the case, but may be presented in a persuasive manner.

The goal of closing arguments is to provide the jury with a clear picture of the evidence and why it leads to a conclusion supporting a verdict in favor of the plaintiff or defendant. At the conclusion of closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury on the law, and then the jury leaves the courtroom to deliberate (determine the verdict).

Verdict And Judgment

When the jury has reached a verdict, all of the parties return to the courtroom for the reading of the verdict. The verdict is a final determination regarding matters of fact and can be overturned by a judge, but only when the facts of the case could not lead a reasonable person to reach the same determination as the jury.

The judgment is the court’s final determination of the responsibilities and rights of the parties in the particular case. The judgment is the court’s last action in a case and must address all of the issues presented in the case. When making the final judgment, the court relies on the jury’s verdict for issues relating to facts.


Generally, the party that loses at trial may appeal the decision to a higher court. Appellate review of a decision may be used to correct errors committed by the trial court, address developments in the law, achieve a uniform approach to certain issues across courts and pursue justice. In the federal court system, appeals are governed by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. State courts generally have their own rules regarding appellate procedure. Generally, the appealing party (called the appellant) will file a brief that outlines the arguments and facts in support of its position and the appellee (the party who won in the lower court) will file a responsive brief arguing why the decision should be upheld. Depending on the jurisdiction, the parties may have an opportunity for oral argument.

Speak To An Attorney

Representation by a lawyer is not technically required when going to trial, but it is definitely recommended. If you are considering filing a lawsuit, a litigation attorney at The Law Firm of Peters & Wasilefski can represent you throughout trial.

Call us at 717-260-3483 or 866-830-1116, or reach us online, to learn more.