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"It Depends" - Why Attorneys Often Answer This Way and Why It’s a Good Answer

When a new or existing client contacts an attorney with a legal question, they want a simple and straightforward answer to that question. The problem is that almost nothing is simple or straightforward about the law or the legal process.

Even cases with seemingly identical facts do not always wind up with the same results. A good attorney will never tell a client exactly what outcome to expect. Instead, a good attorney will answer with “it depends” and then explain to a client why “it depends.”

In the context of the personal injury arena, this article will help to explain why “it depends” is the best answer an attorney can give a client.

Facts

No two cases are factually the same. So while an attorney can use his/her experience based on the facts, on cases they have handled previously, and on case law, to explain what could happen, it is impossible to predict what will actually happen.

In a car accident case, the facts will always differ. Even in areas that have a high occurrence of repeated accidents. There are a plethora of facts in a car accident case that need to be considered. They include: the people driving the vehicles, their driving skill, the type of vehicles, the maintenance of those vehicles, the road conditions, the time of day, and outside factors like people crossing the street or other vehicles on the street.

In a state like North Carolina which follows the contributory negligence doctrine, the facts of a case are even more important to a claim. The facts could be the difference between recovering damages or not recovering anything. In a car accident case, if a North Carolina defendant can prove that the plaintiff was even 1% at fault for the car accident, then the plaintiff could be precluded from recovering any damages.

In the majority of other states, which follow a form of the comparative negligence theory, the plaintiff’s damages will be reduced by the amount of fault determined. Therefore the degree of fault determined (which is not something an attorney can predict) could lead to a very different outcome within the same case. If a plaintiff in a car accident case is awarded $100,000 in damages and determined to be 5% at fault, that plaintiff would still be awarded $95,000. However if that plaintiff was determined to be 40% at fault he/she would be awarded only $60,000.

Parties

In a typical personal injury claim, the parties are the plaintiff (the person injured), the defendant(s) (the person/entity that caused the injury), and often an insurer. The behavior of any of these parties is unpredictable.There are differing and conflicting personalities involved.

Insurers are in the business of paying as little money as possible to resolve claims.
Plaintiff’s are the party who was wronged. Plaintiff’s are individuals who have been injured and likely had their lives disrupted, the stakes are high for them and it can be hard for a plaintiff to agree to a figure lower than what they believe they deserve. In addition, if a case goes to court, and the plaintiff has to testify, the outcome of the case can be affected. Some plaintiffs will be better able to articulate their injuries and what happened then others.
Defendants often feel that they did not cause the injury, or that the plaintiff was partially at fault and they should not have to pay as much as the plaintiff if requesting. In addition, like a plaintiff, if a defendant has to testify in court, the likelihood of success will “depend” on how he/she is perceived by the judge or jury.

Judge

A judge’s job is to interpret the law. They use many tools when doing this, including prior case law and legislative intent. Since no two sets of facts are the same, interpreting the law and applying it to the specific facts of the case means that there is no way to predict what a judge will decide.

Judges are individuals with their own biases. For example, some judges will make it clear from the outset that they do not like car accident cases and believe that they should settle. That judge is then the same person who is hearing the case.

In addition, not every judge will assess witnesses and interpret evidence in the same way. That is part of the reason that appeals courts exist, to appeal a ruling that a judge made. If a court of appeals overturns a lower court case then that court is likely making a determination that the judge erred in applying the law to the facts of the case.

An attorney can look at a judge’s rulings in prior cases and compare the facts of those cases to the case at hand to try to determine what a judge might do with that specific set of facts but, once again, “it depends” on the judge.

Jury

Unlike a bench trial, in which a case is heard by one judge, if a jury trial is held then a group of individuals with all different backgrounds and experiences is deciding the outcome of a case.

A North Carolina personal injury jury trial is made up of 12 jurors. Those jurors need to come to a unanimous decision about the case. Therefore 12 individuals with their own experiences will be interpreting the facts and applying the law as it has been explained to them.

During jury selection, attorneys are permitted to strike jurors from consideration after hearing answers to certain questions. For example, in a car accident case, attorneys may ask potential jurors if they have ever been involved in a car accident, or if they have ever had any dealings with a particular insurer if that insurer is a party to the proceedings. If a juror answers yes to either question, then each side may want to weigh the pros and cons of retaining that juror. For example, if the juror was involved in a car accident with the same insurer and did not feel that they had been adequately compensated, that could work in the plaintiff’s favor. On the other hand, that same juror might feel that if he/she did not get adequate compensation, neither should the plaintiff.

The makeup of the jury is critical to any case. While attorneys do their best to pick the best jurors with the information they have, once again, the outcome of the case will be “it depends” on the jury.

Let Our Charlotte Attorneys Review Your Case

The Charlotte, North Carolina based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC are experienced attorneys. They know how to examine the facts of a case and apply the law and can advise you as to whether or not you should proceed with a claim. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation.

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