Overview of Appellate Cases in North Carolina

Once a jury announces its verdict or a judge decides a case, that’s not necessarily the end.  Sometimes one or more parties may appeal.  This is how a party might challenge the outcome or decisions made by the judge during the course of pretrial motions or at trial.  To initiate the appeal, the appealing party must file a Notice of Appeal with the Clerk of Court and serve the notice on the other parties to the lawsuit.  But, the timing of an appeal is nuanced as there are complicated rules about what can be appealed and when the appeal is ripe.  

While some appeals must wait until the case is over at the trial court level, others appeals can happen while a case is still pending.  Those are cases involving interlocutory orders that are immediately appealable. 

An interlocutory order is an order made while the case is still pending.  An otherwise “interlocutory order” can be appealed immediately when allowed by statute if (1) the order affects a substantial right; (2) the order is final as to some but not all of the parties or claims, and the trial court certifies that there is no just reason to delay the appeal; (3) the order in effect determines the action and prevents a judgment from which appeal might be taken; (4) the order discontinues the action; (5) the order grants or refuses a new trial; (6) the order rules upon the court’s jurisdiction over the appellant’s person or property adversely to the appellant.  The burden is on the appellant, i.e., the appealing party, to establish a legal basis for the interlocutory order to be appealed during the pendency of the case.  

For example, in a personal injury case, if a party moves for a jury trial and the court enters an order denying the request, that order is immediately appealable.  Because the U.S. Constitution affords the right to a jury trial and it is well-settled law that the right to jury trial is a substantial right, an interlocutory order on the right to a jury trial may be appealed immediately.  Most cases that go up on appeal from an interlocutory order are those orders affecting a substantial right.  

Another type of interlocutory appeal that could be involved in a personal injury action is where a defendant in a case is granted a motion to dismiss based on a lack of personal jurisdiction over that defendant.  Because the case is final as to at least one party, if the court certifies that there is no just reason to delay the appeal, it may be taken as an interlocutory appeal.  If the case only involves a single defendant and a judgment grants a motion to dismiss based on personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff may appeal in that instance as well.

For interlocutory orders that are not immediately appealable, in effect, a plaintiff in a personal injury action would then have to wait until the entire case is over to have the interlocutory order reviewed by the appellate courts.  For example, if a judge grants a motion early on in the case that only decides some of the issues in the case but leaves others for trial, the order is interlocutory and may not be appealed until a final judgment is reached later in the case.  There may be additional appellate issues that are created while the case moves on towards a final judgment.  Or, the case could be resolved by a settlement before the appeal is ripe.

An outcome where a party wanting to appeal has to potentially wait years to have their appeal heard may rightly sound unfair.  That may especially be true for personal injury victims that are waiting for their case to work its way through the court system so they can get the compensation they deserve and need.  The reasoning announced by our courts is that there is no more effective way to procrastinate the administration of justice than that of bringing cases to an appellate court piecemeal through the medium of successive appeals from intermediate orders.  The court views premature appeals from interlocutory orders as delaying the final resolution of litigation and as imposing a substantial financial burden upon all the litigants involved.  Right or wrong, that’s the view from the courts.

The other type of appeals are those appeals taken from “final judgments.”  Appeals from final judgments are always appealable because they dispose of the entire case and must be initiated within 30-days from the entry of judgment.  For example, if a judge grants summary judgment in a personal injury case in favor of the defense and completely disposes of the need for trial, that is a final judgment.  The appeal in that instance must be initiated within 30-days from the entry of judgment.  If the appeal is not taken within 30-days, the party wishing to appeal will have forfeited the right to appeal. 

Once the appeal is ripe to be brought and proper notice of the appeal is given, the parties have to settle the record, and file legal briefs on the grounds for the appeal and the arguments involved.  There are many highly technical rules that must be followed during that process.  After the cases are briefed, for a limited number of cases the Court of Appeals selects those it wants to hear for oral argument.  For other cases, the Court of Appeals will decide the case based on the briefs without oral argument.  After considering the merits of the appeal, the Court of Appeals will issue its opinion on the case.  That opinion is now law.

Generally, the Court of Appeals attempts to decide cases within 90-days.  After the Court of Appeals issues its opinion, the parties can appeal the decision or petition the Supreme Court for discretionary review.  From the time the Court of Appeals issues its opinion, a party has 35-days to appeal or petition to the Supreme Court.

The attorneys at Horton & Mendez know the different types of appeals and complex rules that apply.  We take pride in working cases through all available procedural channels to help clients get the outcome they deserve.  If you are an attorney and need help appealing a case or if you are a client that wants new counsel to handle your appeal, please call us for a free consultation.

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