Discovery is a key part of a civil law case. Discovery takes place before trial. Both parties attempt to “discover” facts about the case held by the other side. The purpose of discovery is not only to gather evidence and information for the trial but also to help each party evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their case.
To conduct discovery, lawyers use four basic tools:
- Depositions: A deposition is when a witness to a case gives out-of-court recorded testimony under oath. The purpose of depositions is twofold: to record the testimony of witnesses while their memories are still fresh and to give both parties a fair preview of what the witness is likely to testify to at trial.
- Requests for Admissions: Requests for admissions ask another party to either admit or deny certain carefully worded questions. They are typically written in yes/no format. An example might be: “Were you the person driving the car at the time of the accident?”
- Requests for Production: Requests for production are formal letters sent to the other side asking for specific books, documents, or physical items for inspection and copying. Among the most useful tools for discovery, requests for production allow one party to ask the other for documents or tangible evidence, including electronic records. During this process, the parties will obtain most of the physical evidence used at trial. Presented with such requests, parties may respond and explain that the evidence requested is unavailable for various reasons: for example, the documents were destroyed, the items in question were no longer in the party’s possession, or the attorney-client privilege covers certain documents.
- Interrogatories (see below)
What is an Interrogatory?
An interrogatory is a question, usually given in a series of interrogatories. As noted, they are a part of the discovery process before trial. One party to a case sends their interrogatories to the opposing party, who must answer them.
Interrogatories are designed to elicit information necessary to prepare for trial and usually ask for information about facts and issues related to the case. Although interrogatories are usually written by the party who sent them, form questions are sometimes used in certain types of cases and certain jurisdictions.
Attorneys usually help their clients answer interrogatories, so interrogatory responses tend to be more finely crafted than answers to deposition questions. Usually, lawyers use interrogatories to obtain detailed information about persons, corporations, facts, witnesses, and identity and locations of records and documents.
There may be many interrogatories in one set, but courts limit the number of interrogatories that can be posed simultaneously. A common limitation on interrogatories is between 25 and 35 per set. Although the number of questions in a set of interrogatories may be limited, multiple sets may be issued. In theory, one party could ask the other hundreds of interrogatories; courts have rules for the discovery process which govern such a situation. This rule keeps parties to a lawsuit from purposefully inundating each other with pointless questions designed to waste time and rack up lawyers’ fees.
Interrogatories must be answered fully and returned to the party who sent them. Requests for the Production of Documents often accompany them.
Is there a Time Limit on Answering a List of Interrogatories?
Yes. Federal courts required interrogatories to be answered and returned within 30 days. Most other jurisdictions follow the 30-day rule as well. When a party fails to respond to interrogatories promptly, the party who sent them may file a motion with the court to compel responses. A judge can penalize a party for not answering interrogatories.
Can I Lie on the Interrogatories?
Lying is not permissible on interrogatories any more than lying in court is permissible. After answering the questions, you must sign an affidavit swearing under oath that your responses to the Interrogatories are true. A notary attests to your signature.
Since the responses are given under oath, just as with testifying in court, a party can be penalized for lying under oath or “perjuring” themselves. Some states classify perjury offenses as a felony, while others treat perjury as a misdemeanor. Therefore, depending on where you are, the severity of penalties for perjury can vary. Possible penalties include fines and imprisonment for as much as 5 years.
What If the Interrogatories are Not Related to the Lawsuit?
Interrogatories must follow state or federal rules of evidence, which govern the type of information that is and is not admissible in court. An objection can be filed to an interrogatory that asks for inadmissible evidence. That would include an interrogatory that calls for hearsay (hearsay is second-hand evidence).
A party might object to an interrogatory because it is too broad (it would take many paragraphs to answer) or doesn’t make sense.
Another objection to interrogatories is if they would reveal information subject to the attorney-client privilege.
What Types of Questions Are Asked on an Interrogatory List?
There are two types of questions asked as a part of a list of interrogatories:
- General questions
- Specific questions
A set of interrogatories may begin with basic questions asking for basic information, such as a person’s legal name and current address. These questions are relatively easy to answer. However, specific questions will also be posed. These are much more involved questions asking for the facts of the situation that led to the lawsuit.
Here are some examples of interrogatories:
- State your company’s annual dollar sales for prefabricated artificial teeth for each year from 1997 to today.
- State the marginal cost of production of each type of prefabricated artificial teeth that your company sold or manufactured for each year from 1997 to today.
- For each year from 1997 to today, describe in detail and quantify all costs or expenses relating to training dealers’ personnel, dental laboratories’ personnel, and dentists, and to the extent possible, allocate the costs and expenses between dealers, dental laboratories, and dentists.
Since interrogatories are designed to get information from the other party to a lawsuit, it makes sense that, in addition to asking for information, you also ask for any documents that are related to the information you seek. A Request for the Production of a Document is often issued along with a set of interrogatories.
Should I Contact a Lawyer About Interrogatories?
Interrogatories are likely complex and written in legal language that might be difficult for a non-lawyer to comprehend. They are written by lawyers who intend for them to be read by the opposing party’s lawyer.
Because of this, a local civil attorney can be invaluable if you are a party to a lawsuit that is currently in the discovery process and you are asked to answer interrogatories. An attorney can help you formulate answers that are tailored to divulge the information requested and no more.
Of course, an attorney can also draft carefully worded interrogatories for you to ask of the other side of the lawsuit. In addition, interrogatories open with a long set of definitions, as well as a long description of the specific rules of evidence that must be followed. An attorney is best qualified to draft these portions of the interrogatories.