More often than not, the courtroom of a personal injury trial is frozen in the narrative of “he said, she said.” Fortunately, trial evidence provides an opportunity for a judge or jury to relive reality from every point of view. Trial evidence includes eyewitness testimony, photographs, and direct examination questions. During direct examination, a personal injury lawyer asks key witnesses a series of questions. The goal is to develop a credible timeline for the injuries.
These crucial questions help paint a factual picture of the incident and can make or break whether the judge or jury rules in your favor. Keep reading for everything you need to know about direct examination questions, including a sample direct examination script to help you prepare for your personal injury trial.
What Are Direct Examination Questions?
Direct examination questions allow a personal injury attorney to ask key witnesses to explain what they saw, heard, or did in relation to an incident. For example, an attorney in a car accident personal injury lawsuit may call a bystander to testify about what they saw just before, during, or after the accident. Direct examinations also allow witnesses to identify demonstrative evidence, such as photographs, videos, and related documents. Direct testimony may also be obtained from expert witnesses, who provide expert opinion on how the injuries developed.
Direct examination questions are typically the third stage of a personal injury trial. At the start of the trial, all parties involved in the case introduce their evidence, such as photographs or videos. Next, the personal injury attorney for each party delivers their opening statement. These statements summarize each party’s point of view and provide background information about the incident. Once opening statements have been given, the trial moves along to direct examination. After direct testimony, a witness can undergo cross-examination or redirect examination about the subject matter they discussed.
Answers to these questions are used as evidence in your case. You are under oath when responding to direct examination questions, which means you must tell the whole truth. Failing to tell the truth on the stand is considered perjury, and could result in a fine or even a jail sentence.
Who is Involved in Direct Examination?
Direct examination is an opportunity for all parties to refine their cases for a judge or jury. Each party can call their own selection of expert witnesses and bystanders to the stand. This means the number of individuals involved in direct examination stretches far beyond the plaintiff and the defendant. There are several important players involved in the personal injury trial process that help argue a solid case.
Roles in a Personal Injury Trial Process
The prosecution in a personal injury trial consists of the plaintiff and their legal counsel. The plaintiff is the injured party, and they’re likely the individual who filed the lawsuit. The role of the prosecution is to present a “burden of proof” for the case that convinces the judge or jury of the defendant’s negligence or liability. The prosecution asks their own witnesses direct examination questions and can cross-examine the defense’s witnesses.
The defense in a personal injury trial consists of the defendant and their law firm, known as the defense counsel. The defendant is the accused at-fault party, whose actions allegedly caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The role of the defense is to argue against the prosecutor, creating reasonable doubt that the defendant acted negligently. The defense calls their own witnesses to ask direct examination questions and can also cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.
Witnesses in a personal injury trial can either be eyewitnesses or expert witnesses. Eyewitnesses are bystanders who were present at the time of the accident. Expert witnesses are considered industry leaders in their field who are often called to the stand to provide educated context to an accident. Examples of expert witnesses include doctors, crime scene analysts, and accident reconstruction specialists. During direct examination, both the plaintiff and defendant can be called as witnesses to testify on their own behalf.
4. The Judge (Your Honor)
The judge, or “Your Honor” as they’re called during the trial, is responsible for monitoring the trial process. The judge will intervene if a line of questioning violates court rules or if there is a hostile witness on the witness stand. The judge’s role is to ensure justice is served.
5. The Jury
The jury is a randomly selected group of your peers. They are meant to represent the overall opinion of society. A jury is typically composed of 12 people, none of which can have any relation to either party involved in the case. The role of the jury is to vote on the innocence or guilt of the defendant as well as the settlement awarded to the plaintiff.
How Are Direct Examination Witnesses Chosen?
Your law firm should choose witnesses that help position the jury in your favor. As such, the less involvement a witness has in your case, the more credible they appear.
Think of it this way: An individual who was hit by a car has the most intimate knowledge of how the accident took place, but they also have an obvious motivation to win their case. A jury might view this witness’s credibility as biased. In comparison, eyewitnesses who observed the accident, like a bystander in a neighboring vehicle, can offer an impartial view of the incident.
Aside from eyewitnesses, a personal injury attorney may also select expert witnesses to testify in your case. To qualify as an expert, a witness must be a certified physician, therapist, crime scene analyst, or something similar.
By law, only expert witness answers can give an opinion or draw conclusions from the evidence. Therefore, an eyewitness to the accident is not permitted to speak on medical damages or what caused the accident, aside from what they saw. For example, an eyewitness can testify that a defendant failed to stop his vehicle. An expert witness, on the other hand, can testify faulty brakes prevented the defendant from stopping the vehicle.
A personal injury law firm will select experts whose daily work is in the field which they will testify. So, an expert who repairs and installs brakes may be a more credible direct examination witness than someone who specializes in seatbelts or airbags. Most importantly, a direct examination witness should establish trust.
Direct Examination Sample Questions
Direct examination is the chance to tell your side of the story through a series of questions and answers. However, all witnesses—including the defendant and plaintiff—must tell the complete and honest truth, not just the bits and pieces that benefit their case.
The following trial techniques ensure your attorney reveals all the important points without overstepping the boundaries set by the court.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
To keep a juror’s attention, your attorney should avoid lengthy, rambling questions. Instead, questions should use simple words and allow the witness to elaborate on various facts. A general rule is all direct examinations should be open-ended, short questions.
To entice a detailed response, questions should begin with: Who, Why, What, Where, and When. You should avoid beginning questions with: Did, Didn’t, Does, Doesn’t, Is, Isn’t, Aren’t, Will, Won’t, Can, Can’t, Could, Couldn’t Would, Wouldn’t—these will always call for a yes or no answer.
Open-Ended Example Questions
- Say This: “What, if anything, did you observe?” or “What part of your body bothers you?” This will force a witness to spell out each answer.
- Avoid This: “Did you see the accident?” or “Does your back hurt?” Both will only elicit a yes or no response and the latter question might be considered as leading.
Avoid Leading Questions
Leading questions are direct examination questions that suggest the answer, contain the answer within the question, or force a yes or no answer. A specific question like
“Does your back hurt?” would be considered leading because it suggests where a victim’s pain is. Leading questions are against federal rules. A leading question can entice an objection or formal protest that will disallow a witness’ testimony.
Leading Question Examples
- Say This: What did you observe?” This non-leading, open-ended question encourages a witness to provide exact details about what they’ve seen.
- Avoid This: “Did you observe Mr. Jones accelerate through the red light?” This question suggests what Mr. Jones did before the witness has a chance to testify. Not only does this force the direction of the witness’ testimony, but a judge can rule against it.
Utilize the “Double Direct” Technique
Sometimes during a witness statement, an attorney wants to highlight specific prior statements. However, it is against trial court rules to blatantly repeat questions or return to a previous witness’s testimony. So, you can utilize the “double direct” trial technique instead.
This technique uses the witness’s own words in consecutive questioning to emphasize specific details. Bear in mind, double direct should only be used once or twice during each witness statement.
Double Direct Example Questions
A personal injury attorney may lead with the direct examination question, “How did you feel after the accident?” to which a witness may answer, “I felt pain in my lower back with a knife-like pain shooting down my right leg.”
Next, the attorney could ask, “How much time elapsed from the accident until you felt this knife-like pain shooting down your right leg?” The attorney might ask further questions like, “Do you still feel a knife-like pain shooting down your right leg?”
The repetition of “knife-like pain” utilizes the double direct trial technique. It highlights the intensity of the injury by using a non-leading question to emphasize key points.
Add In Transitional Phrases
As a witness’s testimony continues, an attorney may need to direct a jury’s attention to another time or place. Or the attorney may need to switch the direction of questioning to keep the direct examination interesting. Transitional phrases allow for this. Transitional phrases help continue the timeline of an incident without using leading questions like, “Did you witness a red car drive by?”
Transitional Phrase Example Questions
An attorney may use transitional phrases like “describe,” “explain,” or “what happened next?” A common transitional phrase that isn’t considered leading by most trial courts is, “Did there come a time that …?” For example, “Did there come a time that a red car drove by?”
Direct Examination Script for a Plaintiff Testimony
As a plaintiff, your attorney will certainly call a selection of eyewitnesses and expert witnesses to testify on your behalf. Additionally, there’s a large probability you will also be asked to take the witness stand during direct examination. As part of your attorney-client relationship, your lawyer will likely inform you of their key points ahead of time, so you can know what to expect. Bear in mind, a cross-examiner from the defense counsel will also have a chance to ask you questions. However, your attorney will likely prepare you for those as well.
A sample direct examination script for a plaintiff’s testimony may sound something like this:
- Q: Where were you driving prior to the collision?
A: I was headed to Food City off East McDowell Road in Forbes.
- Q: What were you doing just prior to the collision?
A: I was stopped at a red light at the intersection of North 21st Street and East Palm Lane.
- Q: In what direction and on what street were you traveling at the time of the collision?
A: I was traveling south on North 21st Street at the time of the collision.
- Q: Describe the traffic conditions prior to the collision.
A: The roads were very crowded. All lanes of traffic had multiple vehicles stopped at the red light.
- Q: Was there a car stopped in front of your car?
A: Yes, there was a red Mazda sedan stopped in front of me.
- Q: How much distance separated the front of your car from the back of the car stopped in front of you?
A: I would say roughly 10 feet separated the front of my car from the back of the car in front of me. It looked as though another vehicle could fit between our vehicles.
- Q: Where were you making eye contact at the time of the collision?
A: I was watching the stoplight across from me to see if it was going to turn green.
- Q: Did you have your foot on the brake of your car at the time of the collision?
A: Yes my foot was on the brake, a thousand percent.
- Q: How long had you had your foot on the brake?
A: Around a minute. I had stepped on my brake to slow down the first time I saw the stoplight turn yellow, and I left my foot on the brake while waiting for the light at the intersection to change.
Notice that every sample answer included exact details to the best of the witness’s memory.
The more information a witness testimony has, the easier it is for a jury to make a decision. Be sure to elaborate as much as possible when answering your direct examination questions.
Find a Trial Lawyer Trained to Take Your Case to Court
Direct examinations are a key component of any successful personal injury trial. Even more important is the law firm on your side before you or any witnesses in your case take the stand. An experienced personal injury attorney will help tell your side of a story to a judge and jury. They give you the best chances of receiving rightful compensation for your accident injuries. Sign up for your free consultation today to prepare for your day in court.