Law & the Media in Texas — Civil Trial

The Civil Process

The Trial

After filing of pleadings are complete, the judge in whose court the case has been assigned sets a trial date. If the trial is to begin at that time, subpoenas must be issued for prospective witnesses.

Juries in justice and county courts consist of six members. District court juries have 12 members. Either side may request a jury. A 10 to 2 verdict is sufficient in civil district trials, but a unanimous verdict is necessary in criminal district trials. Juries make findings of fact.

The trial proceeds in much the same fashion as a criminal trial with the exception that no one is accused of a crime. The decision before the judge or jury is to find for the plaintiff or for the defendant. In civil cases, the judge or jury make their decision based on the preponderance of evidence.

Guilt is not an issue in a civil case. That is, no guilt or innocence is involved. Therefore, the word “guilt” should not be used at any time in a civil matter and especially not at the time the verdict is returned in a civil case.

In civil cases the jury makes findings on questions that the court submits to it. The judge approves a judgment based on the jury’s findings, although the judge is not bound to go along with the jury. Reports of civil trials should avoid saying that juries have awarded money. Juries make finding of fact and return those findings to the trial judge in the form of a verdict.

Questions to the Jury

At the conclusion of all evidence, questions are submitted to the jury with instructions from the judge. This is the court’s charge. The questions involved require positive or negative answers.

In an automobile accident case, for example, a question might read: “Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that Joe Smith drove his automobile at a speed in excess of the 35 mph limit?” The jury would answer, “He did” or “He did not.”

An attorney may object to questions that are too general or do not comply with the law. The charge to the jury can be one of the most complicated parts of the civil trial. Wording of the questions can be exacting, and decisions may be reversed because of faulty questions.

Texas was one of the first states to use special issue questions and is one of a few states using them now.

In certain cases, the jury may also be asked to decide on the degree of responsibility.

Settlement, Verdict and Judgment

A settlement is an agreement between the parties to a lawsuit. Judges and juries have nothing to do with a settlement. Parties can settle a case at any time, even after a verdict is returned or even after a judgment has been entered by the court.

Juries do not return settlements, nor do they make awards. However, they do make certain findings of fact and return verdicts. A verdict represents a jury's finding of certain facts about a case.

A judge generally plays no role in either a settlement or a verdict. Judges do, however, enter a formal court document called a judgment based on a jury verdict. In a non-jury case, the trial judge will usually make findings of fact and conclusions of law and then enter the final judgment in the case.

Reporters should understand these critical distinctions.

Nonjury Rulings

Civil court judges take some actions without the aid of a jury. Among them are the applications for writs. A writ is an order requiring the performance of a specific act. The request for a writ is an application.

A common example is a writ of injunction. One side in a lawsuit presents an application to the court for a writ. The judge may issue a temporary injunction and set a date for a hearing on a permanent injunction.

Sealed Records

Court records are presumed to be open to the general public.

Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 76A, ordered by the Supreme Court of Texas in 1990, prohibits judges from sealing court records. An exception exists when one of the parties to the action demonstrates to the judge that a “specific, serious and substantial interest” would justify keeping the matter sealed.

The rules make public any agreed upon settlements that have an affect on public health and all settlements involving public officials and governments.

Divorce, child custody and other cases arising out of the Family Code are exempt from the rules. That doesn’t mean they are automatically sealed, but they can be sealed. Also exempt: the disclosure of information about trade secrets.

Motions to seal court records must be heard in open court and notice of the proceedings must be posted in advance at the court house and with the state supreme court.

Any organization or individual that opposes the sealing may participate in the hearings. A judge who seals a record must state the reasons in writing.