Knowing When To Ask Non-Leading Questions On Cross-Examination

kokokokokjjFrom Day One it is hammered into the head of every lawyer headed for trial: Ask Only Leading Questions. But is this truly gospel?

McElhaney, quoting Mauet and others, doesn’t think so. Not only does the repetition of “Isn’t it true that . . .” become tedious and tiring, it limits the examiner’s ability to expose the witness as a braggart or someone giving well-rehearsed testimony.

He also offers an excellent illustration of a circumstance in which use of non-leading questions can actually produce a more powerful result. He describes a lawyer trying a medical malpractice case involving a brain-damaged newborn. At deposition, the doctor was asked who had the duty in the particular hospital to resuscitate a child who wasn’t breathing: the doctor, nurse, anesthesiologist–who? The doctor responded: “We really don’t have any rules. It’s kind of a grab bag.” (McElhaney, Litigation, 183.)

McElhaney points out that the lawyer could have covered the while point during cross-examination at trial with one leading question:

“Q.  Doctor, you really don’t have any rules for who is in charge of infant resuscitation. It’s kind of a ‘grab bag,’ isn’t it?

A.  I guess so.”  (Id.)

Instead, he advocates a series of questions calculated to make the admission and use of the unfortunate term “grab bag” more powerful.

“Doctor, explain the hospital’s rules about who has the duty to resuscitate a newborn child who is not breathing.

(The doctor tries to sugarcoat it a little.)

A.  Well, of course, it’s a concern that everybody has, so there is not exactly a precise set of guidelines.

Q.  Pardon me, Doctor, but we’ve talked about this before?

A.  Yes.

Q.  And that’s not what you told me then, is it?

A.  No.

Q.  What did you tell me then?

A.  It’s kind of a grab bag.

Q.  A ‘grab bag’?

A.  Yes.” (Id.)

Something McElhaney does not highlight, but I think is hugely important, is that, because of the doctor’s prior deposition testimony, the examiner never lost control of the witness. Regardless how the doctor may have tried to squirm around and potentially offer a new hierarchy of responsibility for resuscitating a child (perhaps he had misspoken in his deposition and, on reflection, concluded that the duty falls to the anesthesiologist), the examiner had crisp prior deposition testimony available to keep the doctor in line.

“Ask only leading questions” is definitely one of the ten commandments of cross-examination, but it’s a rule that can be broken when the examination is handled carefully and where the resulting testimony is expected to be more powerful.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

2 responses to “Knowing When To Ask Non-Leading Questions On Cross-Examination

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