Interrogatories are one of the discovery methods used during litigation. They are crucial to litigation, and perhaps second in importance only to your deposition. Stated simply, the other side sends you questions about the facts of the case, and you are required to answer those questions under oath. If you fail to answer or give inadequate answers, you can be sanctioned by having to pay money to the other side, or even have your case thrown out if you are the plaintiff, or have your answer stricken and judgment entered against you if you are the defendant. I have prevailed in a number of actions when the other side failed to cooperate in the discovery process. If is a foolish way to lose a case, so be sure to take the time to properly answer any interrogatories.
Interrogatories can be “form” interrogatories (pre-printed sets of questions prepared by the Judicial Council), or they can be “special” interrogatories (questions that were prepared by the opposition). Unscrupulous attorneys and/or parties attempt to use interrogatories as an harassment technique, and may serve you with hundreds of questions to answer. They hope that you will be so overwhelmed with so many questions that you will fail to answer and then can then bring motions to compel and ultimately prevail in the action on that basis. These techniques are easily shut down if you know how, but you will likely need an attorney to fight such tactics or, if you are going it alone, you will need to invest in some reference books.
Generally you will have 30 days to respond to interrogatories, but the time may be shorter in some cases, so be sure to carefully read the interrogatories or the statutes to which they refer. If you fail to answer the interrogatories on time, you waive any objections. In other words, if an interrogatory asks a question that is improper, such as requiring you to reveal certain financial information, you can object to that question and refuse to answer. However, if you fail to respond on time you may then be required to answer a question that otherwise you would not have been required to answer.
Do not short change the time required to properly answer interrogatories, nor allow your attorney to do so. My practice is to send the interrogatories to my clients and allow them to provide the initial responses to the factual questions (I take care of the purely legal questions). Sometimes a client will ask, “why did you send these to me; can’t you prepare the answers?” Sadly some attorneys do prepare the answers for their clients, but it is a terrible idea. In the first place, many of the questions can only be answered by you, such as “Where did you go to school?” and “Where have you lived for the past five years?” But aside from this practical consideration, it is important that you be involved in the process because you need to own the answers. When you are on the stand testifying and the opposing attorney is grilling you on an interrogatory answer you provided, you can’t simply respond, “Oh, that is what my attorney wrote; I’m not sure why.” You lose all credibility with that answer.
If you feel overwhelmed by the interrogatories and want some guidance, it is perfectly okay to sit down with your attorney and answer them together, but you must be involved in the process. If you are involved in litigation in California, you need the experience of Morris & Stone. Call for a free telephone consultation at (714) 954-0700.
If you are going it alone, or if you just want to understand what your attorney is doing, here are some excellent reference materials:
Civil Procedure Before Trial is the civil litigation bible in California. All judges are provided a set of these guides and they are what the judges refer to when they are deciding procedural matters. They are hugely expensive to buy, but you can use them for free at any law library. As far as I know, every county has at least one law library, usually near the courthouse. If your financial circumstances are such that you simply can’t afford an attorney and you are trying to navigate the legal system by yourself, I cannot imagine trying to do so without access to Civil Procedure Before Trial. Even after more than 20 years of litigation, I refer to these volumes on an almost daily basis. And even if no law library is convenient to you and you are forced to buy these volumes, consider that the cost is less than what you would pay for three hours of an attorney’s time, on average.
Incidentally, judges and attorneys refer to this set of guides as “Weil and Brown”, referring to the judges that wrote it. Technically it is what is referred to as a “secondary source” since it is not case law, but it is so well regarded that it is permissible to cite to it directly. If you look on the first few pages it provides the proper citation format to be used when citing the materials in a brief. With these volumes in hand, preparing or defending against a motion is far easier since all of the law and procedures are spelled out; you need only quote from the text.
Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, is an outstanding self-help litigation book. If, understandably, you can’t afford Civil Procedure Before Trial, then this is the minimum investment you must make if you want to maximize your chances of winning. This guide is so helpful in explaining the process that I sometimes provide copies to my clients so they can better understand what I am doing. Even if you have access to Civil Procedure Before Trial, this offers a nice supplement since it explains things in layman’s terms.
Fewer than 10 percent of cases that are filed ever go all the way to trial. They are either decided by way of motion, settled, or abandoned by the plaintiff. However, if you are going it alone and find yourself approaching trial, then this DVD series is an excellent way to prepare for trial. It offers a very detailed guide to witness questioning, introducing evidence, and the other parts of putting on a trial. The author, Robin Yeamans, is a divorce attorney, so the examples are based on a family law matter, but the examples will be useful in any civil court proceeding.