Oregon Civil Litigation: The Plaintiff's Case in Chief

We continue our series in explaining the civil litigation process in Oregon from the very beginning to the very end.

After each party gives an opening statement, the party with the burden of proving the case, the plaintiff, begins to put on his or her case in chief. Generally, this involves calling witnesses, and admitting exhibits. However, there is a lot more to it than simply parading witnesses in front of a jury, and admitting exhibits. On one level, the rules of evidence govern what and how evidence is introduced at trial.  On another level, the art of advocacy determines how a lawyer puts on a case.

Pre-trial submissions often provide a general preview to the court and opposing counsel.  It is also common for attorneys to agree before the trial that some evidence, mainly exhibits, are relevant, and admissible. As we covered in an earlier article, each party has the option of filing a motion in limine, which is a request to the court to exclude certain evidence from the jury, even before it is introduced.  So the first question is what kind of evidence can come into the case, and what kind of evidence cannot.

In order for evidence to be admissible, it must generally be "relevant" to a "claim or defense." In other words, the information introduced to the jury, whether it is an exhibit or witness testimony, must tend to either prove or disprove one of the issues in the case. For example, in a negligence case, one primary issue is whether or not the defendant acted unreasonably under the circumstances leading up to the alleged injury. So, any evidence about how the defendant behaved leading up to the alleged injury is relevant.

However, there are limits. The defendant may have acted carelessly in the past under similar circumstances, but it does not necessarily follow that this prior bad behavior can be brought to the jury's attention. This is referred to as "prior bad acts," and of course, there are always exceptions. If the defendant made it a habit of taking a turn at a certain intersection in a certain way, that may be inherently reliable, and can be introduced as "habit" evidence.

Another area that comes up often in trials involving injury claims is whether or not the defendant was insured at the time of the incident that is bringing everybody to court. A specific rule of evidence provides that the mere fact that a defendant was insured for his or her liability at the time of a collision or accident is not relevant to the issue of whether that defendant is negligent. This is often referred to as the "collateral source rule." Potential jurors will occasionally ask about the presence of insurance, perhaps out of concern that a verdict may cause an economic hardship to a defendant. However, by rule, this is snot relevant to the issues in the case, and it is not something that a jury should consider in evaluating how much compensation a plaintiff deserves.

After dealing with the technical issues within the evidence code, and attorney also must consider how to best present the client's case. Considerations include which witnesses to call, and in what order. Other questions may concern which documents to admit, and whether demonstrative exhibits will better help the jury understand the issues in the case.  Sometimes, the issues involve technical subjects like medical science or physics, and the attorney's job is to educate the jury, through the right witnesses and exhibits, all the while making sure to prove the critical parts of the case.

Do you have questions about whether your case will go to trial? Call us at 503-325-8600. We can sit down with you and explain the process from beginning to end becuase we have been down that road more than once.