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Civil Trial without a Jury

Court trials are a popular topic on TV shows. Most civil lawsuits, however, end before trial. Cases often end by the parties reaching an agreement through alternative dispute resolution, or by the judge's decision based on a "dispositive motion" such as summary judgment, or by the parties agreeing to dismiss the case.

During a trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence to decide whether the Defendant should be held legally responsible for claims made by the Plaintiff. A trial in which the judge makes the decision about who wins is called a "court trial" or a "bench trial." A trial in which a jury decides who wins is called a "jury trial." Civil cases are generally set up as a court trial; a party must specifically ask for a jury trial and pay an additional jury fee to the Court in advance of the trial. See MN Statute § 357.021.

Handling a civil trial involves many complicated steps, court rules and procedures, so we strongly encourage you to get help from a lawyer.

Read this booklet to learn about the trial process:
Booklet Civil Trial Booklet
What to Expect as a Self-Represented Party in a Civil Trial (without a jury)

Stages of a Civil Trial (no jury)

Generally, in a civil trial without a jury the Plaintiff presents her side of the case first. When the Plaintiff "rests" (finishes presenting her evidence), the Defendant then has an opportunity to present his side of the case. The common stages of a civil trial are listed below.

Trial Stage


Opening Statements

When the trial starts, the Plaintiff's attorney (or Plaintiff if she has no lawyer) usually is the first to give an opening statement. She tells the judge a summary of the facts of the case, and what she intends to prove during the trial.

The Defendant can give her opening statement right after the Plaintiff, or she can wait until the Plaintiff has finished presenting her evidence. The Defendant's opening statement tells the judge her version of the facts, and sets the stage for responding to Plaintiff's evidence. The Defendant will also present "affirmative defenses," if any exist, to the Plaintiff's claims.

Witness Testimony 

This is the main part of a civil trial, where each party presents key evidence (sometimes called the "case-in-chief").

The Plaintiff usually presents her case-in-chief first; she may call witnesses and experts to testify, and introduce physical evidence (like photographs, documents, or medical reports).

Presenting witness testimony usually follows this pattern:

  • A party calls a witness to the stand, and the witness is "sworn in" (swears or affirms that he will tell the truth).
  • "Direct examination" of witness is when the party who called the witness to the stand asks questions of the witness as a way to present evidence that strengthens the party's position in the case.
  • After direct examination, the opposing party can question the witness through "cross-examination." Cross-examination usually must be limited to the matters covered during direct examination. The purpose of cross-examination is to clarify the answers given on direct examination, and it can also be used to challenge the credibility of the witness. If the judge allows, cross-examination may get into additional matters.
  • Next, the party who originally called the witness to the stand has another opportunity to question the witness through "re-direct examination." This is where the party attempts to fix any harm done to her case through cross-examination.

After the Plaintiff finishes presenting her case-in-chief (after she "rests"), the Defendant presents her evidence in her case-in-chief.

Once the Defendant has rested, the Plaintiff will have a chance to respond to the Defendant's arguments through "rebuttal," a time when she can contradict the Defendant's evidence.

Throughout the trial, either party may make an objection about questions asked of witnesses, the answers given, or other evidence being offered.

Closing Arguments

In their Closing arguments, the parties "sum up" their cases. Both parties try to convince the judge that the evidence supports a decision in their favor.

Legal Briefs &
Proposed Orders

The judge may require or allow the Plaintiff and Defendant to file written legal briefs arguing and applying the law to the facts of the case. The judge may also require one or both parties to file a proposed Order, which the judge may sign or amend and sign. Briefs and proposed Orders are challenging for a non-lawyer to prepare, but it may be possible to get samples and help with legal research from a law librarian.

Judge's Decision

Unless the case is very simple, after receiving all of the evidence, the judge will usually take the case "under advisement" to take time to think about the evidence and law, and write a decision.

The party who loses a case might be ordered to pay money to the winning party (the party who wins). See MN Statute § 549.02.

If the losing party is ordered to pay money to the winning party, it is the responsibility of the winning party to collect the money. The court does NOT do the collection for the party. If the losing party does not cooperate and pay voluntarily, collecting the money can be difficult. For more information on the collection process, see the Judgment section on this website.


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