What is Fact-Finding in a Personal Injury Case?

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 What is Fact-Finding in a Personal Injury Case?

Fact-finding is a type of legal process wherein a neutral, third party interviews witnesses and reviews documents to determine exactly what happened in the accident that has led to a personal injury lawsuit. The purpose of fact-finding is to establish which facts are true and not subject to contest in the trial of the case. Fact-finding occurs during fact-finding hearings.

Fact-finding is a type of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). These are processes which aim to resolve a legal dispute without a trial. In many cases, a pre-trial settlement may result after fact-finding reveals what actually occurred in the accident at issue in a personal injury case.

If fact-finding is done by the parties to a lawsuit, it is done through the discovery process and governed by the rules of discovery. Such processes as interrogatories, depositions, and production of documents are the methods used in every civil lawsuit to determine what evidence there is and what it shows about the case.

Neutral fact-finding is done by an impartial person, sometimes an expert of some kind, who is not a party but is selected by the parties. It is possible that the fact-finder would be selected by an agency if the agency has a role in the case. Or the fact-finder may be appointed by a person who has the authority to appoint a fact-finder in order to determine the facts in a dispute, e.g. someone who works for a court.

The basic advantage of fact-finding is thought to be that if a trustworthy and impartial person delivers findings of fact, this should carry great weight with the parties. They would be more likely to settle the case. Their own evaluations of their respective positions in the lawsuit would be affected favorably by the input of the neutral fact-finder. In other words, they themselves would view their own positions more realistically, and this would make them more likely to settle.

Reportedly, fact-finding is a process that originated in labor disputes, but variations of it have been applied to a variety of legal disputes in other areas as well, such as personal injury cases. Fact-finders generally are not permitted to decide questions of law, but rather they only investigate the factual issues in a case and produce a report of their view of the facts.

In some cases, the fact-finder may be tasked with producing an assessment of a situation or a specific non-binding recommendation as to how a dispute might be resolved. In cases where such recommendations are not accepted, the evidence (or facts) should then have been collected and organized in a fashion that will facilitate further negotiations or be available for use in later adversarial proceedings, e.g. a trial.

The key point is that fact-finding is never binding. It is designed to be advisory only in the hopes that it can offer the parties a pathway to resolving their dispute voluntarily through mutual agreement.

However, in any civil case, it is possible for the parties to agree that certain facts do not need to be proven at trial and to reduce the facts at issue to one or two only. They do this in the interest of making the trial proceed more quickly and at a lower cost. Fact-finding could facilitate the process of the parties agreeing that certain facts do not have to be contested at trial.

Fact-finding is similar to the process sometimes called “early neutral evaluation.” Again, having a third party whom the parties view as neutral or impartial can give the parties access to an objective evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of their respective cases. With early neutral evaluation, the parties can usually make informal presentations to the evaluator to highlight their respective cases or positions.

This process is used in a number of courts across the country, including federal district courts. Early neutral evaluation is appropriate when the dispute involves technical or factual issues that lend themselves to evaluation by experts who would provide expert testimony at trial.

It is also used when the parties disagree significantly about the value, strength or weakness of their positions in cases. It is helpful especially if a person in a position to make decisions about whether or not to settle a case needs to be better informed about the real strengths and weaknesses of their position. Finally, it is used when the parties are seeking an alternative to the time and expense of engaging in discovery and trial.

Are the Results of Fact-Finding Binding During the Lawsuit?

Fact-finding is similar to arbitration, except that the conclusions reached in fact-finding are not legally binding. A ruling in an arbitration can be binding on the parties, and the parties may well have given up their right to appeal the arbitration decision. With fact-finding, the parties can usually decide what legal consequences result from the establishment of the facts. If the parties cannot reach a settlement after fact-finding, the parties usually proceed to trial. As explained above, the results of fact-finding may be incorporated into the trial.

Results reached in fact-finding may be immune from challenge during the ensuing trial. But that would be the case only if the parties agree to it. Generally, the parties have the option of choosing whether or not the facts are to be binding during trial. If the facts are binding, then the trial would focus only on the facts that still have to be decided, if there are any remaining. In addition, the parties would argue issues of law, rather than issues of fact.

Who Conducts Fact-Finding?

Fact-finding is usually conducted by a person or panel of people who can be viewed as neutral by the parties. The fact-finder should be a person who is not directly interested in the outcome of the case. It might also be preferable to have someone who understands evidence and has experience in assessing the weight that should be given to items of evidence and whether or not it is credible.

This could be:

  • A judge or retired judge;
  • A hearing officer or hearing examiner;
  • A neutral third-party mediator or representative appointed by the parties as in other alternative dispute resolution processes.

Each state has its own rules regarding the procedural and legal guidelines for fact-finding. In some states, it might be mandatory in some situations. In others, it may not be used at all or only rarely.

Civil trial courts in California have embraced ADR. Some courts even require the parties to a civil case to participate in some form of ADR, such as mediation or arbitration. California recognizes a process it calls “case evaluation,” which is somewhat similar to fact-finding. In case evaluation, each party makes a presentation of its case to a neutral evaluator. The neutral evaluator then gives the parties its opinion as to the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s evidence and arguments.

The hope is that this would lead to a settlement, or at the least help the parties come to a voluntary resolution of the dispute later. Case evaluation, like mediation, can take place early in the dispute and save the parties time and money. The case evaluation process is most valuable if the parties have an unrealistic view of the dispute and need outside assistance in valuing their case. Or in cases that depend largely on technical or scientific questions and expert opinions, case evaluation can be helpful. It can be used in combination with mediation or arbitration.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Fact-Finding in a Personal Injury Case?

The fact-finding process generally requires that the parties each be represented by their own lawyer. During fact-finding, the parties will be asked many different questions in relation to the personal injury claim.

It is best if you have an experienced personal injury lawyer present if you are being requested to participate in fact-finding hearings. Your attorney can also represent you if the case proceeds to trial in a court of law.

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