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Shapiro & Appleton

Demystifying Injury Litigation for Clients

When I tell a client that we have received interrogatories on their case their level of anxiety goes through the roof if they have not been involved in civil personal injury litigation before. And why do they call these questions interrogatories anyway? Leave it to lawyers to have a six syllable word titled "interrogatories" instead of just calling them "questions." We could save four syllables and drop the arcane legal phrase "interrogatories" entirely.

In any case, a set of interrogatories includes a series of questions where one party in a civil lawsuit can require that another party answer the questions under oath.

All About Interrogatories

Don't make up stuff, and don't answer in a Bushism and mangle the English language. I am giving the straight scoop about how your answers must be honest and your attorney must know the gory details and decide what exactly must be disclosed.

Many states have a 30 day time limit for responding and some states like Virginia (VA) have a 21 day response time frame in state court. Every state has a set of civil procedure rules that govern these questions and many other aspects of discovering information from another party. There is a whole body of evidence law and discovery law in each state which interprets what types of questions can be asked but it is sufficient to say that most questions that have some possible relevance to the lawsuit can be inquired into.

Can the other party ask about legal advice or discussions between you and your attorney?

Absolutely not. This is an example of protections of the the attorney-client privilege and normally an attorney will answer with an objection asserting the attorney-client privilege. It would be up to the judge in the case to overrule this type of privilege. There are a number of other special privileges that protect information. Typically, when a party sends a set of interrogatories to our client, we send the pleading on to our client and explain to them that they should answer all of the questions that deal with factual matterslegal issue.

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What is the significance of interrogatories in a lawsuit?

One point is that the other party lawyer can stand up in court and show a jury the interrogatories/question and a client's answer so long as the attorney notifies the court that it intends to make this information known to a jury. Also, interrogatories, because under oath are essentially testimony of a party. When a party gives an answer under oath it is essentially stating a client position on that point and it is hard to change that testimony in the future.

Naturally, circumstances can change-- such as a physical condition can grow worse, and if the condition or situation changes, it is appropriate to file a supplemental answer notifying the other party of the additional or supplemental information. In some cases, we may file 10 to 15 times supplemental answers on behalf of a client, updating information.

Especially because interrogatories may be read to a jury, any attorney must be careful and review all answers with a client before they are placed under oath. I've had the experience of several clients not fully disclosing information about a prior injury or a prior condition that they didn't think was relevant-- and did not want to tell me about-- so they did not feel it needed to be listed. Once I have reviewed all of the information with the client, I've convinced the client that under the law they must provide the information even though they don't believe it is relevant.

The test in virtually every state and federal court is that if the information may in any way lead the opposite party to some relevant point in the case, it must be disclosed. It is clearly good legal advice to a client to always disclose what could possibly be required because simply giving the answer under oath in an interrogatory, in no way means that the information could be utilized at trial with a jury.

In other words, there is a lot of information in injury litigation that must be disclosed, but there is a much tighter requirement about what evidence is admissible to a jury and a judge will exclude all kinds of things that might have been disclosed in the interrogatory answers, but are later ruled not admissible at trial. A perfect example would be disclosing that a client was in a prior
car accident 15 years ago and suffered personal injuries.

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If the current case involves a right elbow injury, and the prior injury was a left foot injury, the prior foot injury must be disclosed, but would normally not be admissible at trial as long as we can show it has no relevance to the nature of the current personal injuries in the current car accident that is in litigation such as how the accident happened, what parts of the body were injured, a list of all medical providers treated with and those types of questions. We will tell the client that if a question involves a that is unclear, that we will assist the client with that answer and get the client's approval to a final complete set of answers to interrogatories before it is filed. Answers to interrogatories must be normally be notarized, and if a client resides in a different city the final set of answers will be notarized, and mailed back to our office.

Richard N. Shapiro
Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia
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