What does it mean to “rest” a legal case?

In a civil trial, a party that “rests” its case is saying that he is finished providing evidence to the court and that the next step of the trial can proceed.  The phrase “I rest my case” is also used colloquially to mean “I’ve made all my arguments and I have nothing more to say.”

Civil trials of personal injury or similar tort claims usually proceed in a very specific manner.  The jury is chosen through a process called voir dire, and the judge often reads the jury certain preliminary instructions in order to give the jurors some guidance in understanding the information they’re about to hear.  Then, the case begins with the plaintiff or her attorney giving an opening statement.  The defendant may also decide to make an opening statement at this time, or may decide to wait until after the plaintiff has rested her case.

After opening statements, it’s the plaintiff’s turn to build her side of the case, using testimony from both lay witnesses and expert witnesses, exhibits, and other pieces of evidence.  The order in which the plaintiff or her attorney chooses to present this information depends partly on the rules of evidence and partly on how the plaintiff or attorney feels the information would best benefit the case and fit into her overall trial strategy.

For instance, a plaintiff who was injured in a car accident may begin by giving her own testimony about what happened. She may be asked questions, by her own attorney, in order to guide her testimony and make sure no details are left out.  Questions asked by the attorney who put the witness on the stand are also known as direct examination or just “direct.”  Then, the defendant or the defendant’s attorney may ask questions as well.  Questions asked by the opposing party are known as cross-examination or just “cross.”

After the plaintiff has given her testimony, her attorney may choose to call an expert witness or a police officer who responded to the accident scene.  The attorney may use these witnesses to provide a foundation for admitting certain pieces of evidence, like photographs or medical records, into evidence.  The process by which certain pieces of evidence, often called “exhibits,” can be entered into evidence and shown to the jury is set out by each court’s rules of evidence.

Once the plaintiff’s attorney has called all the witnesses and admitted (or had the judge rule inadmissible) all the evidence that supports the plaintiff’s case, the plaintiff or her attorney will rest the case.  Often, this step simply involves the plaintiff or her attorney saying “the plaintiff rests her case” or simply, “we rest.”

Depending on the time of day, how long the jury has been sitting, or other factors, the judge may call a recess, which might be as brief as a bathroom break or as long as overnight.  In high-profile cases that take several days, the jury may be sequestered to prevent them from improperly getting advice from other people or seeing news reports that might affect how the jurors view the case.

After the plaintiff rests, it’s the defendant’s turn to present his case.  If there is more than one defendant in a case, each defendant and his attorney has the opportunity to present a case, and each must “rest” when it is finished.  Products liability cases, for instance, frequently have more than one defendant.

Once every party has had a chance to make its case to the jury and to rest, the attorneys for each party present closing arguments, and the jury goes into the jury room to discuss the case and try to reach a verdict.

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