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.