Lawsuits seeking damages for losses resulting from a car accident are called “civil” suits. While the rules governing lawsuits vary from state to state, civil actions generally follow the same format. The course of a civil action can be divided into three distinct stages. The first of these is the commencement of the lawsuit. One party (the Plaintiff) begins a lawsuit by filing a "petition" or "complaint" in court. The responding party (the Defendant) answers the lawsuit by also filing documents with the court.
What is Discovery?
Once those initial filings are done, the lawsuit moves into the next stage, called “Discovery." This is by far the lengthiest phase of the lawsuit. The purpose of discovery is to allow both sides to exchange information and documentation about their respective claims and defenses.
The first step in discovery is usually the exchange of written documentation that relates to, or was generated as a result of, the car accident. That could include medical records, medical bills, witness statements, police reports, and photographs of the accident scene.
Another discovery tool is interrogatories, which are written questions sent from one party to another. Learn more about Interrogatories in Car Accident Cases.
What is a Deposition?
Another method to obtain information relevant to a car accident case is through depositions. In a deposition, a party (usually through an attorney) is allowed to ask oral questions of another person who has information that is pertinent to something having to do with the car accident.
Depositions may be taken of a variety or persons including
- the drivers of the cars involved in the accident
- passengers who were riding in the cars involved in the accident
- witnesses to the accident
- doctors who provided medical treatment to the parties, and
- investigating police officers.
There really is no limit to the types of persons who can be deposed as part of a car accident lawsuit. Typically, the only requirement is that the deponent possess information related to the lawsuit.
Where is a Deposition Conducted?
Depositions can be conducted anywhere, but most court rules require that the deposition be held at a location reasonably close to where the witness resides. So, if the witness lives in Chicago, the witness typically cannot be forced to travel to New York for a deposition, though there are exceptions to this rule. The deposition usually occurs in the office of one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit, though this is not a specific requirement. Depositions can be held almost anywhere, including courthouse libraries, business conference rooms, a doctor’s office, or even in the living room at the witness’s residence.
Who Will Be Present at a Deposition?
Normally depositions are attended by only a handful of people. These usually include:
- the attorney who is requesting the deposition (or the individual party if the party does not have an attorney)
- the witness (and the witness’s attorney, if the witness prefers)
- any other attorneys representing parties in the lawsuit, and
- the court reporter.
Deposition Testimony is Given Under Oath
This last person, the court reporter, is a very important part of the deposition process. The testimony in every deposition is given under oath. Through the course of the deposition the court reporter utilizes a recording machine to record every word that is said by every person present at the deposition.
Giving testimony under oath means that the testimony is given under penalty of perjury. So, if the witness is later found to have given knowingly false testimony (versus an honest mistake), the witness can be subject to civil or criminal penalties.
What Types of Questions Will Be Asked?
Once the deposition begins, the attorney requesting the deposition starts by asking the witness basic questions about his or her identity and connection to the lawsuit.
From there, the types of questions depend largely on the purpose behind the deposition. For example, if the witness is the Plaintiff who is claiming injuries, this may be the defense attorney’s first opportunity to learn in detail about the nature of the injuries. The attorney may also want to know what the witness observed as the car accident occurred.
If the witness is one of the Plaintiff’s treating physicians, the attorney may wish to find out about the medical treatment that has been provided, and also about the prognosis for recovery from the injuries.
Sometimes the parties may wish to depose the investigating law enforcement officer to discover in more detail the officer’s observations while at the accident scene.
A deposition usually concludes within a few hours, though this is not a requirement. Each state has different rules governing depositions and the length of time parties are allowed to take in asking questions.
Each state also has rules addressing the notice that is required to other parties prior to a deposition. If, for example, you are a person who might give deposition testimony as part of a car accident case, you usually do not have to worry that you will receive notice on one day requiring you to appear for a deposition the very next morning. Most states require notice of at least five business days before a witness must appear at a deposition.
More often than not, depositions are typically scheduled by agreement among the parties, so as to allow for as little interference as possible with a witness’ work or school schedule, or other obligations.
Learn more about the different steps involved in Resolving a Car Accident Claim.