Do you have a legal basis for an appeal?
This article provides an in-depth look into the appeals process in personal injury cases, examining the role of appellate courts and explaining the legal bases for filing an appeal. It also explores the potential outcomes and risks of filing an appeal, offering guidance for those considering the next step after an unfavorable verdict.
An appeal is a request to a higher court to review and change the decision of a lower court. In a personal injury case, an appeal provides some hope if you believe the initial outcome was unjust.
Let’s take a closer look at appeals, including the role of the appellate court and the legal bases on which you can file an appeal.
What is an appeal?
An appeal is a procedural device used to challenge the judgment or order of a trial court.
Either party can initiate an appeal. The party initiating the appeal is known as the “appellant,” while the party defending the lower court’s judgment is known as the “appellee” or “respondent.”
The most important thing to understand about an appeal is that it is not a retrial or a new trial of your case. Appellate courts do not review new evidence or hear new witnesses testify. There is no jury. Rather, the appellate court reviews the procedures and decisions of the trial court to make sure the proceedings were fair, and the proper law was applied based on the evidence that’s already in the record.
Each state’s court system is divided into at least three levels:
- The trial court
- The intermediate appellate court
- The supreme court
The state’s supreme court is the highest appellate court in the state.
In addition, there are 13 appeals courts on the federal level, which handle federal matters.
Can I appeal my personal injury case?
The movies would have you believe that every civil case is appealed, but this is far from the reality.
To appeal a personal injury case, there must be a legal basis for the appeal. In other words, you can’t appeal a case simply because you’re unhappy with the court’s decision.
Common legal bases for an appeal include:
- Error of law: The most common basis for an appeal is that the judge made an error of law, such as applying the wrong rule or legal standard to the facts of a case.
- Abuse of discretion: An appeal may be based on the argument that the trial court abused its discretion, meaning the court’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. This might involve procedural decisions (such as decisions about the admissibility of certain evidence) or substantive decisions (such as the award of damages).
- Constitutional rights violation: If a party's constitutional rights were violated during the trial process, this could provide a basis for appeal. For example, if a party was not given the proper opportunity to present evidence or if the court showed bias, these could be considered violations of due process and might justify an appeal.
- Jury misconduct: Jury misconduct can provide the basis for an appeal. Jury misconduct might include a juror having improper communications with the parties, attorneys, or witnesses in a case; or a jury failing to follow the court’s instructions.
The appeals process
The appeals process generally begins with the filing of a notice of appeal with the trial court. This must happen within a specific period after the judgment or order is entered, typically 30 days in most jurisdictions.
The appellant then submits a brief, a written document arguing why the trial court's decision was incorrect. The opposing party, the appellee, can respond with their own brief, arguing the contrary.
Sometimes, appeals courts make their decision on the basis of the written briefs. Other times, they hear oral arguments before deciding a case. At oral argument, each side’s attorney has a brief opportunity to argue the case to the court and to answer questions posed by the judges.
Possible outcomes of an appeal
The outcome of an appeal can vary significantly depending on the particular case. Here are some of the most common possible outcomes:
- Affirmation: If an appellate court affirms a decision, it means the appellate court agrees with the lower court’s decision. The original outcome of the case stands.
- Reversal: A reversal means the appellate court disagrees with the decision of the lower court. This does not necessarily mean the party who appealed will win the case; rather, it often means the case will be sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.
- Remand: When an appellate court remands a case, it sends the case back to the trial court for further action. Further action might mean a new trial, or it might simply require the lower court to reconsider its decision in light of the appellate court’s opinion.
- Modification: An appellate court might modify a lower court’s decision. The most common example is an appellate court agreeing with a trial court’s decision on liability but disagreeing with the amount of damages awarded.
The risks of an appeal
Filing an appeal may feel like a no-brainer. After all, what have you got to lose? Quite a bit, actually.
The appeal process can be time-consuming and costly. In some cases, the appellant may be ordered to pay the appellee's costs and attorney's fees for the appeal.
Most personal injury cases are handled on a contingency fee basis, meaning the attorney is only paid if you recover damages.
So what happens if you lose at trial and want to appeal?
The contingency fee agreement you signed with your attorney should address the appellate stage of the case. Most contingency fee agreements charge an additional fee for taking an appeal or simply limit the attorney’s services through trial.
The decision to appeal should not be made lightly. Before deciding to file an appeal, you should consult with an experienced attorney. When selecting an attorney for an appeal, consider their experience handling appellate cases, understanding of the specific area of law involved in your case, and their ability to communicate clearly and effectively.