Opening Statements in Personal Injury Litigation
Jury trials begin with the attorneys’ opening statements. Your lawyer addresses the jury first. The defense lawyer can choose to address the jury immediately after your lawyer finishes or wait until you have finished presenting all of your evidence. Most defense lawyers open immediately after your lawyer’s opening.
Opening statements are an extremely important stage of the proceedings. The attorneys are permitted here to tell the jury what the case is about and what the evidence will show. It is also the second opportunity the attorneys have to influence the jurors. The attorneys seek to build upon the trusting relationship they began cultivating during voir dire. The idea here is to get the jury to identify with the lawyer’s client and his or her case.
Jury research indicates that 80% of jurors make up their minds as to liability for the accident after the opening statements and never change those initial beliefs. Accordingly, smart trial lawyers treat this area of the trial with careful preparation and deep respect.
It is absolutely crucial that the opening statement be interesting to the jury. The trial lawyer’s worst nightmare is a boring opening address. It is extremely difficult to persuade an inattentive jury. Experience has shown that one of the best ways to get and keep the jury’s attention is to turn the opening address into the telling of a story. The skillful trial lawyer attempts to weave a tale concerning the events of the accident and the plaintiff’s injuries that gives the jury an interesting context for the case. A boring car accident case can be enlivened by this storytelling technique.
Perhaps the opening address might begin as follows.
April 11, 1997, began as an ordinary day in the life of John Jones. He awoke, made his coffee, talked to his wife and kids, and got ready for work. Little did he know that the events of that day would change his life. Come with me as we journey back to that momentous day in John Jones’ life. Come with me as we watch the events unfold that would leave John Jones with the shattered life and dreams he must cope with today.
What juror could sleep through that?
Lawyers often choose a theme for the case that they first refer to during the opening statement. This gives the jury an interesting point of reference that hopefully will make the evidence easier to understand and apply during deliberations. The lawyer then returns to this theme during the closing argument in order to create a sense of completeness and closure in the jury’s mind.
For example, for a grocery store slip-and-fall case, your lawyer may use the theme of consumer expectations. He or she will speak of the store’s failure to meet those expectations and how the accident resulted from that failure. Adding this theme element makes the story more interesting to the jury than a dry recitation of what the evidence will be.
The attorney may also weave interesting and familiar analogies into the opening address. He or she may analogize a scarred face to a damaged work of art. He or she may point out the economic value society places on art in the hope that the jury will value an intact human body even more. The trial lawyer will do whatever it takes to get and keep the jury’s attention and empathy during the opening statement. You should feel free to suggest to your lawyer appropriate themes, analogies, or stories for your case.
Lawyers make certain promises to the jury in the opening about what the evidence will show. It is a foolish lawyer that makes a promise that he or she cannot keep, since the opposing lawyer will pounce on unkept promises. If the trial has gone as planned, the lawyer reminds the jury during his or her closing argument of the promises made during opening statements and how those promises were kept. This helps to tie the whole process together in the jury’s mind and helps it reach clear conclusions about who should prevail and for how much.