If your case goes to litigation, you will need to answer interrogatories, usually within the first few months after the lawsuit is filed (others can be served later in the case). Interrogatories are written questions from opposing counsel — part of the discovery process — designed to give him basic information about you and your case. They must be answered in writing and under oath (notarized), and returned to opposing counsel within 30 days.
While different lawyers have different methods, it is fairly common for plaintiffs’ lawyers to mail their clients the defendant’s interrogatories with fairly limited instructions on how to answer them. This is because the lawyer plans to tweak and modify your answers before preparing them in final form for your signature. So, many times plaintiffs will receive them with only the vague instructions to “answer as best you can” and return them to the lawyer. To save you some time and anxiety when the time comes to answer interrogatories, here are some basic instructions on how to answer them.
The Four Basic Types of Interrogatories in a Personal Injury Case
The first set of interrogatories, called initial interrogatories, sent out in personal injury cases are fairly standardized. In my home state of Florida, the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure actually contain standard initial interrogatories which must be used by both the plaintiff and defendant in personal injury cases (with extra standard instructions for car accident and medical malpractice cases). Even if you’re not in a state which has such mandatory interrogatories, it’s a safe bet that the lawyers in your state have developed standard questions which run along similar lines. If, after reading the defense lawyer’s interrogatories, you’re wondering “why did he ask me that?”, see this article.
The four basic types of initial interrogatories (aside from the obvious ones, such as “State the name and address of the person answering these interrogatories”) are:
- List questions,
- Yes/No and if yes questions,
- Narrative questions, and
- Lawyer questions.
How you answer each question, and how thorough your answer should be, depends upon the type.
How to Answer Interrogatories — List Questions
List questions are interrogatories you usually must answer in the form of a list. Examples of these would be:
- List the names, business addresses, dates of employment, and rates of pay regarding all employers, including self-employment, for whom you have worked in the past 10 years.
- List all former names and when you were known by those names. State all addresses where you have lived for the past 10 years, the dates you lived at each address, your Social Security number, your date of birth, and, if you are or have ever been married, the name of your spouse or spouses.
- List the names and business addresses of each physician who has treated or examined you, and each medical facility where you have received any treatment or examination for the injuries for which you seek damages in this case; and state as to each the date of treatment or examination and the injury or condition for which you were examined or treated.
- List the names and business addresses of all other physicians, medical facilities, or other health care providers by whom or at which you have been examined or treated in the past 10 years; and state as to each the dates of examination or treatment and the condition or injury for which you were examined or treated.
- List the names and addresses of all persons who are believed or known by you, your agents, or your attorneys to have any knowledge concerning any of the issues in this lawsuit; and specify the subject matter about which the witness has knowledge.
You should answer these as thoroughly as possible, as omitting items from these lists may prevent you from calling certain witnesses or introducing certain evidence later. When these questions ask for specific dates, such as the ones asking for dates of medical treatment, don’t waste time trying to list each specific date on which you saw your doctor (your medical records will provide this information). Rather, just list a range, such as “March 2010 – February 2011”. If you can’t narrow it down to the month, just list the years. Interrogatories such as these are not expected to be answered with specificity to the day, even though they seem like that’s what is being asked.
If you know that you are omitting things from the list — for example, if you can’t recall all of your treating doctors for the past 10 years and you don’t have any records to refresh your memory — note in your answer that there are others that you cannot recall and try to identify these items as best you can. In the case of doctors, you could say “I know that I saw another physician whose name I cannot recall at this time, despite my best efforts to research the matter. He was a family physician in Orlando, Florida that I saw for the flu in 2002.”
With respect to identifying “all people who have knowledge about your case”, be specific about their names and addresses and vague about the subject of their knowledge. For example, if someone was in the car with you at the time of the accident, you would identify that person specifically and state that he “witnessed the accident — was in my car at the time.” For people you expect to testify as to how the accident has affected you, such as your family members, identify them, state their relation to you and just list them as having “knowledge about how the accident affected my life.”
If you need to go through your records to answer these type of interrogatories completely, do it. Unlike depositions, in which you are only required to answer questions with the knowledge in your head, you are expected to answer interrogatories, especially list-type ones, using any and all resources within your control.
How to Answer Interrogatories — Yes/No and if Yes Questions
“Yes/No and if yes” interrogatories should be fairly obvious. They ask a “Yes/No” question, with a follow-up question only if your answer to the first part is “yes”. Examples of these are:
- Do you wear glasses, contact lenses, or hearing aids? If so, who prescribed them, when were they prescribed, when were your eyes or ears last examined, and what is the name and address of the examiner?
- Have you ever been convicted of a crime, other than any juvenile adjudication, which under the law under which you were convicted was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of 1 year, or that involved dishonesty or a false statement regardless of the punishment? If so, state as to each conviction the specific crime and the date and place of conviction.
- Were you suffering from physical infirmity, disability, or sickness at the time of the incident described in the complaint? If so, what was the nature of the infirmity, disability, or sickness?
- Did you consume any alcoholic beverages or take any drugs or medications within 12 hours before the time of the incident described in the complaint? If so, state the type and amount of alcoholic beverages, drugs, or medication which were consumed, and when and where you consumed them.
- Were you charged with any violation of law (including any regulations or ordinances) arising out of the incident described in the complaint? If so, what was the nature of the charge; what plea or answer, if any, did you enter to the charge; what court or agency heard the charge; was any written report prepared by anyone regarding this charge, and, if so, what is the name and address of the person or entity that prepared the report; do you have a copy of the report; and was the testimony at any trial, hearing, or other proceeding on the charge recorded in any manner, and, if so, what is the name and address of the person who recorded the testimony.
For these questions, if your answer is “no,” that is all you need to write. If you answer “yes”, answer the rest of the question as thoroughly as possible, just as you would answer a list-type question.
How to Answer Interrogatories — Narrative Questions
Narrative questions are those which ask for answers in the form of a narrative description. These are the trickiest to answer, and should be answered as vaguely as possible. Examples of narrative questions are:
- Describe in detail how the incident described in the complaint happened, including all actions taken by you to prevent the incident.
- Describe in detail each act or omission on the part of any party to this lawsuit that you contend constituted negligence that was a contributing legal cause of the incident in question.
- Describe each injury for which you are claiming damages in this case, specifying the part of your body that was injured, the nature of the injury, and, as to any injuries you contend are permanent, the effects on you that you claim are permanent.
Most plaintiffs tend to write a short story in response to these types of questions, using far more detail than they should. Instead, your goal should be to answer as briefly and vaguely as possible while still giving a complete answer. For example, when asked how the incident occurred, you could write “I was stopped at a red light when the defendant rear-ended my vehicle. There was nothing I could do to avoid the accident.” This second sentence should always be your response to “what could you have done to avoid the accident.” Don’t speculate as to what you could have done. That’s the defense attorney’s job. Don’t do it for him.
You don’t need to include irrelevant details such as where you were going or what you were doing at that particular intersection. You don’t need to mention how you looked up at the rear-view when you heard screeching tires. All of these details will be covered at your deposition, so there’s no need to lock yourself into them now (risking possible inconsistency at your deposition).
When asked what the defendant did wrong, once again be vague. “The defendant failed to maintain a proper lookout while operating his vehicle.” “The store failed to maintain a safe premises by allowing a liquid, about which it either knew or should have known, to remain on its floor and/or failing to warn customers about the liquid.” Don’t add any unneeded details.
When describing your injuries, be sure to include every affected body part — leaving out what seems like a minor injury could hurt your lawsuit if that injury becomes more serious later on during the case. Don’t try to list every specific medical diagnosis. Answer as a non-doctor would. “My lower back was injured, causing pain and intermittent numbness and weakness in my legs. I believe this injury to be permanent.”
If your own lawyer wants you to add more detail to your answers to narrative questions, he’ll let you know. Don’t make more work for yourself and your lawyer by starting with a long answer that he’ll just wind up shortening.
How to Answer Interrogatories — Lawyer Questions
There are some interrogatories that only your lawyer will be able to answer. Hopefully, your lawyer will point these out when he mails the interrogatories to you. Generally, these questions involve other settlements or experts, witnesses and evidence that will be used at trial. For example:
- Do you intend to call any expert witnesses at the trial of this case? If so, state as to each such witness the name and business address of the witness, the witness‘s qualifications as an expert, the subject matter upon which the witness is expected to testify, the substance of the facts and opinions to which the witness is expected to testify, and a summary of the grounds for each opinion.
- Have you made an agreement with anyone that would limit that party‘s liability to anyone for any of the damages sued upon in this case? If so, state the terms of the agreement and the parties to it.
- List all witnesses that you intend to call at the trial in this matter and any documents or other tangible items you intend to introduce as evidence at the trial in this case.
Just leave these blank. Most of the time, these will be served too soon in the case to answer, and your lawyer will answer by saying that “no final decisions have been made as to [experts] [trial witnesses] [trial evidence] at this time.”
What Happens After You Return Your Draft Interrogatory Answers to Your Lawyer?
As an initial matter, your draft interrogatory answers should be returned to your lawyer as quickly as possible. He will need time to revise them into final form and have you come in to sign them before sending them to the defense lawyer within the 30-day deadline. Keep a copy of your draft answers, so you can compare them to the final answers your lawyer prepared.
When your lawyer calls you in to sign the final answers, take the time to read them thoroughly, comparing them to your draft answers. If there are any errors, make sure they are corrected. You are signing these under oath. Many plaintiffs have gotten in trouble because they never bothered to read interrogatory answers that were changed by their lawyers. Don’t assume that your lawyer’s office made no mistakes in the revision process.
If, after your interrogatory answers are provided to opposing counsel, you realize that you forgot to include something in your answers (or you made a mistake), tell your lawyer as soon as possible. It is easy for him to provide a supplemental answer correcting the error and it is best done as soon as possible. It looks far better if you voluntarily disclose the error or omission than it does if the defendant discovers it on his own.
As a final piece of advice, never, ever, intentionally lie on your interrogatory answers. If you are caught, the court can impose severe sanctions, up to and including the dismissal of your lawsuit.