Interrogatories are written questions that lawyers send to opposing clients after a lawsuit has been filed in an injury case. They are part of what is called pretrial discovery. In this "discovery" process, each side in the case -- the person who was injured and the person or business who may be legally responsible for the injury -- attempts to learn about the other side’s claims. One of the methods used in discovery is the sending of interrogatories. In most states, attorneys are allowed to send each other 25 or 30 written questions for their clients to answer under oath.
In this article, we'll take a closer look at the role of interrogatories in a slip and fall premises liability case.
A plaintiff in a slip and fall case -- the person who was injured -- is usually asked interrogatory questions about the following topics:
Your lawyer will typically send you the interrogatories with instructions to answer the questions as best you can. Although the interrogatories are addressed to you, some of these questions are actually for your lawyer to answer. For example, the lawyer is the one who will prepare the answers to the questions asking for the plaintiff’s expert witnesses and precise legal claims in the lawsuit.
Your lawyer will then revise and edit your answers, with your input and assistance. Answering the interrogatories is a joint effort between lawyer and client. The answers are a formal legal document that binds you to a position in your lawsuit. It is therefore critical for you and your lawyer to work together to make sure that you get the answers right.
The court rules require that all litigants supplement their answers to interrogatories when they become aware of new information that makes their prior answers incorrect or incomplete. For example, if you had originally believed that there were three witnesses to your accident and wrote that in your answers to interrogatories, but subsequently learned of an additional witness, you must supplement your answers to indicate that there was a fourth witness.
You can supplement and amend your legal theories in your answers to interrogatories (up to a certain point), but you should not change your position with respect to factual issues because that would destroy your credibility. For example, if you originally wrote that you slipped on the stairs because there was ice on the stairs, you should not amend them later to say that you slipped on the stairs because there was no handrail. Such a change would seriously impact your credibility, and you would most likely lose at trial because of the conflicting answers as to how the stairs caused you to fall.
However, if your original legal theory was that the defendant was negligent for allowing ice to accumulate on the stairs where you fell, but, after your lawyer inspects the stairs, you and your lawyer learn that the stairs violated the state building code, you could supplement your answers to the interrogatories to add a new theory of liability that the defendant violated the building code.
Your answers to interrogatories bind you in the lawsuit, both legally and factually. If your answers to the interrogatories state that you slipped on ice, then that is your position in the lawsuit, and it cannot be changed. If your answers to interrogatories state that your lost earnings claim is $48,000, then that must be your position at trial.
If, for example, you testify at trial that you were out of work for two years as a result of the accident, but your answers to interrogatories stated that you were only out of work for one year as a result of the accident, then you can expect that the defense attorney will harshly cross examine you about this discrepancy.
That is why it is critical for you and your lawyer to work together to make sure that your answers to the interrogatories are as accurate and complete as they possibly can be. Both you and your lawyer should proofread the answers to make sure that there are no typos. A $500,000 lost earnings claim can easily turn into a $50,000 lost earnings claim in the answers to interrogatories, and now you and your lawyer will have a difficult time trying to explain to the jury why it should give you a pass on having made a key mistake on a critical legal document.