Litigation -- meaning the filing of a lawsuit and the procedural steps that follow -- is a common result of a car accident claim. People who are involved in car accidents, whether as drivers or passengers, often have different accounts of how the accident occurred. Many times these competing versions of events can only be sorted through with the help of the court system.
While the attorneys and insurance adjusters who are involved in the litigation process handle lawsuits daily for a living, and are therefore quite knowledgeable about the process, the parties themselves are just as often experiencing the judicial system for the first time. Because the experience can be so confusing, you may already be hoping that this is your first, last and only direct contact with the legal system. But it is important to understand the different phases of a lawsuit so that you can be better prepared for your case. In this article, we'll focus on the "discovery" phase of a car accident lawsuit, paying particular attention to interrogatories in a car accident case.
Once a lawsuit is filed by the Plaintiff, the court system will “serve” the Defendant with notice of the lawsuit. The Defendant then files an “answer” to the Plaintiff’s petition or complaint. Once that answer is filed, the next phase of the lawsuit begins. That phase is called “Discovery.”
Discovery is most generally described as that stage of the lawsuit leading all the way until the court trial of the case. The purpose of discovery is for each side to exchange information about their respective positions in the lawsuit -- in other words, to “discover” information about the other side’s claims. The judicial system has learned over the years that lawsuits are most likely to reach an amicable pre-trial settlement when as much information as possible is shared between the parties.
One of the tools made available through the court rules in every state is called an “Interrogatory.” Typically, this is also the first discovery effort that is made following the commencement of a lawsuit.
Interrogatories are a list of questions (typically 30 or so) that can be sent to the opposing party in the lawsuit. Courts usually limit interrogatories to 30 or 45 at a time in order to avoid a party unnecessarily harassing the other side with hundreds of irrelevant questions. Interrogatories are available to each side. So, the Plaintiff can send a set of interrogatories to the Defendant, and vice versa.
It is very important to understand that the party receiving the interrogatories answers the questions under oath, and usually must do so within 30 days or so. If the party answering the interrogatories knowingly gives false information, the party can be subject to civil and criminal penalties for perjury.
In a car accident case, interrogatories can be a particularly useful tool. The discovery phase in the lawsuit is usually the Defendant’s first opportunity to learn about any injuries the Plaintiff is claiming from the accident as well as the Plaintiff’s version of how the accident happened.
Typical questions covered in interrogatories served by the Defendant upon the Plaintiff might include:
Some of these questions appear to be very personal, and they are. In a lawsuit where bodily injuries are claimed, the Defendant is allowed to conduct a very broad and thorough inquiry into the Plaintiff’s physical and mental health treatment history.
The Defendant can delve into other areas of personal information as well. For example, where the Plaintiff is claiming lost wages the Defendant has the right to learn if the Plaintiff has a history of quitting or being terminated from previous employment positions.
A Plaintiff in a car accident case is also allowed to conduct a similar inquiry into the Defendant’s position in the lawsuit. Though the Defendant typically does not claim personal injury in a lawsuit, the Plaintiff still is given broad latitude in the topics of inquiry. These interrogatory questions might include:
Again, these questions can seem very personal, but courts regularly allow these broad areas of inquiry.
If you are a party in a lawsuit and you receive interrogatories, it is important to remember two things. First, respond by the deadline. Any delay can result in serious penalties. Second, answer each interrogatory completely and truthfully.
Learn more about what to expect in a car accident lawsuit in this Timeline of a Personal Injury Lawsuit.