Category Archives: Evidence

A Potted Plant? Eh, Not So Much.

ghg6rtrTwo blawg posts last week caught my eye. Both discussed preparing and defending witnesses at deposition. At the Lawyerist, Chris Bradley talked about his experiences defending a client in his first judgment-debtor examination. His title for the piece, which I mistakenly took to be ironic, was: How To Defend A Deposition: Just Show up. The other post, by Philly Law Blog blogger Jordan Rushie, took the assignment more seriously, and provided better guidance, likely because he has more experience. In his post, Rushie credited Max Kennerly with the notion that “[i]f you prepare your witness properly [for deposition], you should be able to just be a potted plant.”

Let me say first that I’m not sure whether Max Kennerly ever made that statement. It sounds pretty good, provided you don’t, as Jordan Rushie fortunately did not, take it completely at face value. What concerns me is that young lawyers reading Bradley’s post at the Lawyerist and contemplating Kennerly’s remark, might mistakenly conclude that adequately preparing your client or witness for deposition is enough. Or nearly enough.

It’s not enough. Or nearly enough.

I agree that preparing your client or witness is surely the single most important part of your job in defending the deposition. Clients or witnesses who have never been though litigation are quite literally astonished when I suggest that we spend a half or full day preparing for their deposition. And that’s often not enough. I once spent three full days preparing a sexual harassment defendant for his deposition–and I was still unsatisfied with the result. So yes, Max Kennerly is right that witness preparation is the first priority.

But even if you spent a full week preparing the witness (yes, we do spend weeks preparing certain key witnesses, particularly if they do not speak English or the subject matter is particularly complex), your job is not done. There is your responsibility to “preserve the record” meaning making objections when questions are not technically correct. Jordan Rushie got that right.

But, in my humble view, adequately preparing the witness and interposing appropriate objections is still not enough.

My goal at every stage of the proceedings in a lawsuit is control. I’m not so naive that I think I can actually control very much. There are about a thousand things in every lawsuit that are simply beyond my control, the top of the list being the judge. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to control every single nuance as best as I can. I’m a control freak. Control. Control. Control.

When I present a witness for his or her deposition, I am being forced to relinquish control over a very important aspect of the process. In civil litigation, at least in my experience, depositions and documents win or lose a case. There’s very little I can do about bad paper. If there’s a bad document out there and my opposition has properly asked for it, and it’s not privileged, then I’ve got to produce it and we’re stuck with the consequences.

Depositions are different. Unlike bad documents, depositions don’t just exist. A deposition is more of a process. Even when we’re done preparing and I object whenever necessary, my opponent still must ask the right question and get a damaging answer before the evidence comes into existence. That’s a big leap, and I want to make it as difficult as possible to cross that chasm. And I’m not talking here about inappropriate objections, improper instructions not to answer, or being a difficult jackass, or other ethically-challenged conduct. But I do want my opponent to know I’m listening closely, to every word, and I’m not going to make it any easier for him/her than I absolutely have to. Otherwise, what am I getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to do? A well-trained monkey can object when questions are “vague and ambiguous.”† I think our role is bigger than that.

I learned pretty early that you want to create a “tight” environment from the start. By this, I mean that, even if I generally have an extremely cordial relationship with my opponent (and I usually do), I don’t want him or her to think that this particular deposition is going to be easy or fun. I want him or her to feel that our time on the record is “borrowed time,” that he/she is taking up my client/witness’s extremely valuable time, that we’re inconvenienced, that his/her goal should be to finish up as quickly as possible. It’s been my experience that, in most instances, this results in a shorter deposition. Shorter deposition = less chance of damaging testimony from my client/witness = a good thing.

Another way I create a “tight” environment is by interposing a fairly stiff objection early in the deposition. By early I mean in the first 20-30 minutes. This signals to my opponent that I’m listening, and that I don’t intend to put up with any baloney. I do try to avoid speaking objections, because they’re unprofessional. On the other hand, if I need to say additional words to fully state the objection or my nonspeaking objections aren’t getting anywhere, then I’ll say what needs to be said. Again, while it may be my opponent’s deposition, I’m going to retain as much control as I can.

I also want to dictate when we take breaks. At least every hour. I don’t want my witness getting fatigued, hungry, exhausted or even comfortable. When he/she gets comfortable, that’s exactly when the filters in his/her brain start to shut off and the damaging evidence is created.

I’m also not above verbally bitch-slapping scolding any opposing counsel who gets too high-handed with my client. Again, I’m not getting paid several hundreds of dollars an hour to sit back and watch some unprofessional lawyer abuse my client. I’ve come to believe that civility really is best 99.9% of the time. But, if an opponent is abusing my client with his/her examination, I have two choices: I can terminate the deposition or I can push back a bit. If I give some push back, perhaps we can alter the course and finish the deposition without bothering the judge. If I terminate the deposition, motion practice is sure to follow and this is costly, and the judge might not see things my way.

We sometimes walk a fine line when defending depositions. I don’t want to be obstructionist, or an asshole. But when we’re on the record, my job is to do everything ethically within my power to prevent that record from containing evidence that is damaging to my client’s case and/or helpful to my opposition. I respectfully disagree with the notion that this obligation is satisfied by “just showing up” or even by just making objections.

†I mean no disrespect to monkeys, trained or otherwise.


When Judges Play Games To Protect The Record Against Appeal

ghtrEver found yourself in that situation where you are not only losing an argument or motion, but it seems mysteriously like the judge is bent on preventing you from making a decent record of your position?

In Litigation, the wise Professor McElhaney identifies games judges commonly play with attorneys in the interest of preventing them from making a record which can be used to challenge the ruling on appeal. He writes, “If [the judge] can force lawyers to waive objections or forget to make offers of proof . . . it will improve [the judge's] batting average with the court of appeals.” (p.294) Here are a few such games:

1. Cutting off, under the guise of preventing speaking objections, any argument or objection.

2. Refusing to permit offers of proof at the time an objection is sustained; requiring counsel to wait until the next recess or next day of trial, when they’re likely to forget.

3. Insisting that exhibits be offered and admitted only at the end of the entire trial. This “forces lawyers to waive most of their evidentiary objections about exhibits. At the end of trial they are thinking about their final arguments, not about foundations or rulings.” (p.295)

4. Making “weasel” rulings on evidentiary objections: “I’ll let it in for what it’s worth.”

5. Making noncommittal rulings. “I’ve heard enough, let’s proceed.” Or, “All right, I understand your positions; let’s move along.” These aren’t rulings and, regardless what happens next (i.e., the objected-to question is answered and/or the jury hears the evidence), it will be all but impossible for an appellate court to identify an error, since the judge shirked her responsibility to make a ruling.

Recognizing your judge is playing one of these games will help you to maintain your resolve to make an effective record. Oh, and if you’re in a California state court, be sure to order and pay for that court reporter, otherwise you’re not going to be making a “record” at all.


Temper That Temper During Cross-Examination

DSCN2840-220x165“We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand” – Neil Young

There is the temptation, it’s almost primal, to be derisive, if not outright mean, when cross-examining a witness who has lied in the past or is lying on the stand. Even if it’s only theatrical, to provide an example to the jury how they should regard the witness with suspicion or contempt, it seems almost natural to treat her with disgust.

But it’s important to bear in mind that, even if the substance of the cross-examination establishes the witness is a liar or unsavory individual, the jury might not reward an examining lawyer–or his client–if he crosses the line. The real challenge, however, comes when litigating a case on the road, in a venue whose culture draws “the line” of civility differently than an attorney’s home court. I’m thinking here about an experience my colleague had some years back when he (a Los Angeles lawyer) tried a civil case in Hawaii.

I’ve visited Hawaii a few times, but never had an opportunity to conduct business of any kind beyond securing a reservation for dinner or a scuba dive. Frankly, I’ve never given a thought about how Hawaiian citizens would receive a cross-examination of a witness differently than someone from Los Angeles. But it turns out that they don’t cotton well to a lawyer who takes a harsh tone to a witness during examination. This became clear to my colleague (this is hearsay, of course, I wasn’t there) after he cross-examined an important witness using a less-than-gentle tone. Apparently it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the jurors did not react well as the witness was being subjected to a tone of questioning we Californians might consider perfectly appropriate.

That night, in preparation for the following day of testimony, it was decided that our local counsel, a native Hawaiian, would handle the cross-examination of the next adverse witness. I am told the contrast between the his tone during cross-examination, gentle, less confrontational, like “a knife cutting through heated butter,” and my colleague’s examination the previous day, was palpable. Let me make clear that my colleague’s cross was not over the top at all,† just consistent with how we would take such a witness here in Los Angeles. The difference was simply that the Hawaiian jurors do not appreciate the kind of confrontational tone we might employ when addressing a witness in cross-examination.

This highlights a concern we should always have when litigating, or even transacting any king of business, in a venue that is culturally different from our own. When faced with a trial in a culturally unfamiliar venue, I would always recommend involving local counsel, if only to advise about these kinds of cultural differences.

†In fact, it was not a “temper” or anger issue, at all. The title of this post is probably an unfair misnomer.


A Different Take On The Issue of Perjury

vbgfA strong editorial in the Wall Street Journal today by SNR Denton lawyer Matthew Lifflander discusses the economic impacts of lying, with a particular emphasis on perjury in court. I’m sure that, like any ethical issue, we all have different views on the importance of telling the truth and what would constitute a just and deterrent punishment for perjury.

I vividly recall being on vacation in Rome with a politically conservative close friend when the Republicans were all in a lather over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I found it amusing that he was so indignant that our President would be caught blatantly red-handed lying about a blow job. On the other hand, what can we tell our children about the oath of perjury if our leader, our President, ignores it  with impunity?

As the title of his piece suggests, Mr. Lifflander comes at the issue of perjury from an economic, cost-benefit (what benefit? and to whom?) analysis. It’s no surprise to any litigator that the practice of committing perjury is alive and well in our system, whether the liars are alleged criminals, greedy plaintiffs or callous corporations and their executives.

What I like about the piece, however, is not the shift from a purely ethical to a hard-line economic analysis of lying. Mr. Lifflander does offer some compelling statistics about the cost of dishonesty. For example, he cites that, “[i]n 2011 NY City  paid $550 million in personal-injury and property-damage tort settlements and judgments . . . City lawyers have previously said that up to 10% of the claims . . . involve fraud or misrepresentation.” But, while compelling, these numbers don’t move me. I suspect this is because I’m still naive enough to believe one adheres to a policy of truth both (1) because any deviance from this policy threatens a reputation for honesty that I consider sacrosanct (I prefer not to do business with dishonest people), and (2) because it’s just the right thing to do.

Rather, what I like is that Mr. Lifflander offers suggestions on how to curb this rampant abuse. He endorses (1) creating a fund to pay for prosecution of perjurers (to be funded by small taxes on large personal injury judgments), (2) establishing a statutory civil tort to redress those who can prove they were victimized by perjury; and (3) a change to the law to authorize civil trial judges to punish perjurers through fines, sanctions or reductions in judgment.

I would throw out the first two suggestions. I abhor new “taxes” of any kind, and I’m not clear why successful personal injury litigants should be taxed to pay for prosecution of perjurers. If a tax is needed to raise the funds, it should be levied on everyone–not just successful litigants. Establishment of another tort is not the answer, either. Must new lawsuits be spawned off of the wrongs perpetrated during other lawsuits? Do we really need litigation-about-litigation, meta-litigation?

I do, however, endorse Mr. Lifflander’s third proposal: to make it easier for a trial judge to punish instances in which perjury has obviously occurred. There is nothing more frustrating that showing a judge clear and convincing evidence that a litigant has blatantly lied to the court, only to have it ignored. I remember my frustration during one evidentiary hearing in which I held up a real estate document in which it was obvious that the defendant had forged my client’s initials on an arbitration provision (obvious because, next to it, I had a version of the document obtained by subpoena that did not contain her initials), and the judge glossed over the issue. Are you kidding me? I thought. What kind of judge are(n’t) you?

The problem I see, though, is not that judges lack the authority to punish liars, but that many (most?) judges can’t be bothered to do it. The solution is probably not more legislation, but a change in the way judges–those in whom we place our trust to enforce the laws against perjury–view the crime. I doubt much will change on this front, however, until the public takes the crime of perjury and its consequences, ethical or economic, more seriously.


Pre-Trial Evidence Exclusion is a Game of Chess, Not Checkers

ccxxOne of the earliest motions I learned to write while working as a law clerk was a motion in limine. Perhaps because of the brevity and intentionally narrow scope of these motions, the job of preparing and opposing them seems to regularly fall on young associates.

(For the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar, a motion in limine is a document which asks the court to rule on the admissibility of an item of evidence in advance of, trial and outside the presence of, the jury. One example might be a motion in limine asking the judge in an automotive product liability case to issue an order evidence that a driver was intoxicated on the grounds that the driver’s intoxication is not relevant to whether there was a defect in the vehicle that caused injury.)

The relegation of these motions to clerks or younger lawyers suggests to me that lead trial lawyers believe such motions are simple, should be straightforward or have only a minor impact on the trial. I want to argue this thinking is as mistaken as the assumption that a novelist’s craft is more complex than that of a short story writer.

Even if trial lawyers don’t see it this way (at least at first), I’ve heard many judges confirm the notion that prevailing in most trials comes down to one or two issues, or facts, or items of evidence. We’re often stuck with our good or bad facts. But to the extent one side can identify those one or two issues or facts, and devote resources to capitalizing or eliminating them from the jury’s “universe,” this can strongly impact the outcome.

Consider a couple of examples, starting with the intoxicated driver above. The defendant will want to apportion fault to a driver for causing a crash to occur in the first place. That one of the drivers was drunk makes this much easier (even if the forensic evidence suggests the driver did not cause the crash, the jury will automatically assume he did regardless of the evidence). The plaintiff, then, might want to move to exclude this evidence on relevance grounds (and potentially because it could distract the jury from the product manufacturer’s alleged fault). Success on this motion could be a game-changer for the outcome of the trial.

Another example. What if the defendant in a sexual harassment case had a history of prior complaints against him with the same employer by other women. The plaintiff will obviously view such evidence as crucial to winning her case. However, if the defendant employer, through a well-crafted motion in limine was able to keep the prior complaints out of evidence because they were factually dissimilar from the plaintiff’s complaint, this could literally “gut” the plaintiff’s case against both the alleged harasser and the employer (who could be held liable for continuing to employ the harasser following the prior complaints).

I hold the view that many lawyers do not effectively use motions in limine. They are often superficial, or thrown together and filed as an after-thought. They often file too many, diluting the importance of any individual motion in the eyes of the court. So I offer the following thoughts on how to more effectively seek (or oppose) pretrial evidentiary rulings.

plokklThink of A Motion in Limine As A Knight, Not A Pawn. My biggest beef with the way most lawyers–on both sides of the table–use pretrial motions is the sheer volume of motions they file. In a not especially complex wrongful death case, I once had to oppose 29 separate motions in limine. And these came from the plaintiff’s firm. A really good plaintiff’s firm.

What’s wrong with too many in limine motions? The biggest problem is the burden on the court, the judge and her clerks. We all know the lawyers have to work day, night and weekends preparing for trial, but do you really want to be the one unnecessarily causing the judge and court staff to be pulling all-nighters? I don’t.

A subtly related reason not to over-file pretrial motions is that the judge and her clerks will quickly realize you’re unfocused and may (correctly?) conclude you don’t know what you’re doing. At the very least, after reading 3 or 4 frivolous in limine motions, there’s a good chance the court will give your arguments in all of the remaining motions short shrift.

Avoid the trap of viewing motions in limine as Pawns on the chess board of trial; see them instead as the Knights. This piece is the surgical bad-ass who silently eviscerates your opponent’s key pieces. In other words, leave out the true no-brainer motions, like excluding  reference to insurance or settlement discussions. Look instead for opportunities to creatively shape the evidence that gets in front of the jury.

Don’t Just Crank Them Out. A major upside of being selective about pretrial motions and leaving out the kitchen sink is that it frees you, your associate and/or clerk up to prepare a real motion. You know, with citations to authorities, and even excerpts of deposition transcripts that support your position. It also frees up the judge and her staff to read and take seriously just a few well-written, properly supported arguments. They won’t be so pissed off with having to read 14 separate motions (just from one party) that they deny or put off considering the issues until they come up during the trial (which is exactly what they will do–trust me).

Meet and Confer. Regardless whether the rules of court or standing order require it, you should meet and confer, preferably in writing, before filing any motions. And be sincere in this effort, even if you believe it will be fruitless. As recently as three weeks ago my opposing counsel, in a case in which we were electronically filing documents, sent me an email inviting me to meet and confer on his anticipated pretrial motions. The problem was he sent this email quite literally 8 minutes before his office began the process of electronically filing 17 different motions in limine. It’s like a waitress who sets down a plate of bacon and eggs and asks what you’d like to order for breakfast. Don’t think I didn’t highlight this to the court. (I mean the weak meet and confer effort, not the bacon and eggs analogy.)

It Shouldn’t Be A Last Minute Exercise. I think about evidence exclusion from day one, and particularly during depositions. If I hear something in a deposition that I know I’m ultimately not going to want the jury to hear, I’ll make a note of it and go back and consult these notes when it comes time to think about pretrial evidence exclusion. While I had been, up until recently, an enemy of the dreaded deposition summary, I’ve come around and believe that preliminary thoughts about how to exclude a problem witness or keep out harmful testimony should be included in my new-and-improved deposition summary.

Again, well-planned and well-crafted motions in limine can be game-changing if they win. Hopefully, these suggestions will improve your chances of success.


To Object Or Not To Object

hijkIt’s interesting that our law school evidence classes teach us the mechanics of the rules of evidence, however, (if my memory serves) we’re not given much guidance on how to decide whether, assuming a question is objectionable, it is a good idea to object during trial. It is true that the rules of evidence have application outside the context of a jury trial, and in fact it can be years before a lawyer actually has to make the decision whether to raise an objection at trial. But the question whether it makes strategic sense to object in the presence of the jury merits some analysis.

I consulted Professor McElhaney and, as expected, he had wisdom to impart. In Litigation, he articulates rules for when to object. I’ll list the first five here.

Rule One: Wait for a Reason

Only object when you have a good reason to object, and this means that “it advances your theory of the case.” Id. at 211. McElhaney reminds us that jurors resent objections. Why? Because they understand the point of an objection is to keep information from them, keep them in the dark. Assuming your objection is sustained, the jury will most likely understand that you have succeeded in an attempt to keep a piece of information from them. It must have been important information, or else why would you have made the effort to object–at least that’s how the jurors will think.

Rule Two; Don’t Object When It Will Help Your Opponent

I’ll confess that applying this second rule, obvious as it seems, may be challenging. This is because I’m not sure it will always be clear how my objection will help my opponent. Professor McElhaney gives two examples. In the first example, your opponent is leading a witness because so much time has passed that her memory has become fuzzy. You could object to the leading questions, but McElhaney points out that leading questions send a message that the witness cannot be trusted to remember properly, so your opponent’s leading questions may not be helping his cause, and the objection, sustained or not, will likely lead your opponent to improve the witness’s credibility by asking fewer leading questions.

In his second example, your opponent is fumbling through trying to lay a foundation for a business record. If you object, it “may help educate him so he will do a better job with other business records that are much more damaging.” Id. at 212. Let him fumble.

Rule Three: Only Object When Your Objection Deserves to be Sustained

The subtle message sent to the jury if you make objections that are overruled is that you are not especially fit to guide them out of the “swamp” of trial. McElhaney is careful, however, not to suggest you limit objections to only those circumstances in which they will be sustained, but rather only those instances in which they deserve to be sustained. “There are times when you simply must make your record, knowing the trial judge will overrule your objection.” Id.

Rule Four: Object Outside The Jury’s Presence If Possible

McElhaney is careful to distinguish outside the jury’s presence, from outside the jury’s hearing. Jurors hate sidebar conferences.

Rule Five: Object Promptly

This also makes sense. But he also gives an example of where an opponent exaggerates or fabrics a fact during his closing argument. He suggests it could make sense to wait, not object, and instead comment upon the fabricated or exaggerated fact during your rebuttal.

One point McElhaney makes really rings true for me on the subject of objecting during trial: “you have a limited good-will account with the judge and jury at the start of the trial. Everything you do in the trial affects that account. You are always making deposits and withdrawals. . . . [A]n objection looks like you are trying to keep something from the judge and jury, so it usually counts as a withdrawal.” Id. at 211.


When The Deposition Party Is Over . . .

rfdeEvery once in a while I get a glimpse into the way another lawyer or firm practices their craft and I have something like an epiphany. I realize there’s a vastly better way to do something, and it makes me want to kick myself because I didn’t realize it sooner. I was privy this week to some work product from a lawyer representing a co-defendant and I had one of these moments.

By way of background, I have long despised the practice of summarizing depositions. When I finish taking a deposition, the last thing I want to immediately do is revisit the details. I’m not sure why, but I usually just want to get on with my life. Then, the next day–which is the very latest possible time that you should try to summarize a deposition from notes and memory–I’m even less interested in summarizing a depo. Not only do I just hate doing it, I’ve actually given the issue a bit of thought and concluded that, in most instances, it does not bring a lot of value to have someone bill several hundred dollars an hour to “summarize” anything, deposition testimony included. That’s why when I am engaged by a client that does not require a summary, I usually keep the reporting of the event to two sentences or less. Later, as we near trial, I find a sensibly written* page/line index is useful if there is a 5% or greater chance the witness will be called to testify. But a summary of what I just heard has always seemed like a painful waste of time.

Well, like I said, I’ve had an epiphany and changed my mind. The summaries I learned to write as a young associate were these kind of narratives: what kind of witness did they make and what did they say. The summary that made me change my tune had 3 distinguishing characteristics.

First, the “summary” part was in bullet, not narrative, form. It wasn’t a long, time-consuming rumination about what kind of witness the deponent will likely make at trial because she has excessive facial hair, or tends to drool, or whatever. Instead, it was punchy and to-the-point. Something like: “Retired nurse. Late 60s. Smart. Detail-oriented.” The information conveyed by the deponent was described this way, too. It probably took the lawyer 10-15 minutes to lay out these details, maybe less if he dictated it.

The second component was how to deal with the witness if she testifies at trial. In this instance, it was a witness of whom we are theoretically afraid. So the lawyer laid out 2-3 points that distinguishes what she said from the facts of our case, and an additional point about how some of what she said is subject to exclusion as hearsay. The real genius of this approach is that it might trigger follow-up that could be missed otherwise. For example, if the witness went out on a limb about something that could easily be proven wrong by a photograph or a subpoenaed record, you should note this and go ahead and assign the follow-up (at least in a perfect world).

Finally, the third component of the summary was a short opinion about the impact of the testimony. It could be as brief as “Problematic for our defense because . . . .” Or something more detailed, if time and inclination permits. The point is that it’s something that could be dictated or written in a half hour or less at the end of the day before you tuck yourself into that first 12 oz. vodka martini.

Because this format is shorter, tighter and more user-friendly, the recipient of the summary will probably be grateful, too. I can tell you my best writing never found its way into a deposition summary–I save that for you, my loyal readers.

And while we’re on the topic of what to do when you’ve completed the deposition, another is to immediately draft written follow-up discovery, or at least make a to-do list of the additional work that needs doing. Most of the time a witness–at least an important one–will open a door that you hadn’t really considered before. Follow up here is critical and, like the details of a dream, easily forgotten if not at least noted right away.

*A sensibly written page/line deposition index is something I might cover in another post, if I run out of marginally interesting things to write about. I know I’m pushing the envelope with this post about deposition summaries, which is why I included the racy picture.


Sargon Enterprises: California Judges Are Indeed “Gatekeepers”

jkhgOk, I realize I’m a little late to the party, as Sargon Enterprises, Inc. v. Univ. of Southern Cal. (212 DJDAR 15846) was issued at the end of November, 2012. But, better late than never, right?

Practitioners who try cases in both Federal District courts and California state courts are all too aware of the schism that has existed between the courts for almost two decades on the question of admissibility of expert opinion. California has long adhered to a line of authorities tracing back to 1923, when Frye v. United States (293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir.)) was decided. The Frye test, also known as the “general acceptance” test held that a new scientific technique or methodology was inadmissible unless and until the proponent of the evidence established that the technique or methodology had attained “general acceptance” in the relevant field. The California Supreme Court adopted the Frye test in 1976. (People v. Kelly, 17 Cal.3d 24, 32.)

Since the 1993 decision of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (509 U.S. 579), federal courts have applied a different standard. Under the Daubert rule, the trial court’s role is to act as a “gatekeeper” to ensure expert testimony that is admitted is reliable based on certain factors, including whether the opinion was being developed solely for purposes of litigation, whether the opinion or methodology had been independently tested in the scientific community and the potential for error.

The schism between federal and California courts continued until the California Supreme Court’s recent pronouncement, in Sargon Enterprises, that “the trial court has the duty to act as a gatekeeper to exclude speculative expert testimony.” The evidence at issue in Sargon was proposed testimony of a damages expert on lost profits suffered by a dental implant inventor who claimed the University of Southern California School of Dentistry had botched a clinical trial of its invention. In holding that the trial court had properly excluded the lost profits opinions, the California Supreme Court said:

“Under [California] Evidence Code section 801, the trial court acts as a gatekeeper to exclude speculative or irrelevant expert opinion. As we recently explained, [t]he expert’s opinion may not be based on ‘assumptions of fact without evidence support, or on speculative or conjectural matters . . . Exclusion of expert opinions that rest on guess, surmise or conjecture is an inherent corollary to the foundational predicate for admission of the expert testimony: will the testimony assist the trier of fact to evaluate the issues it must decide?”

The California Supreme Court did caution trial courts, however, that their analysis must focus on methodology, not on conclusions. It said: “The trial court’s gatekeeping role does not involve choosing between competing expert opinions.” Referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Daubert, it said, “The high court warned that the gatekeeper’s focus must be solely on principles and methodology, not on the conclusions that they generate.”


Why And How You Should Get “Surgical” With Your Discovery

99ii88uu(I so wanted to accompany this post with a still photo from the scene in Training Day in which Denzel Washington, wielding a sawed-off shotgun, tells Ethan Hawke’s character, “You know I’m surgical with this bitch!” Sadly, I couldn’t find a good still from that scene, so I used this lame stock photo instead.)

I’m a big proponent of serving written discovery that is “surgical,” that is, as narrowly drawn to fit the facts of the case as I can make it. Why? First, because I am a lawyer, my time is expensive. I don’t like to waste my client’s money writing discovery that is not likely to yield anything of value. But it’s not just that.

Drafting and serving unfocused and overly broad discovery will lead, in most instances, only to objections (“Overbroad!”) and, even if there are substantive responses, chances are they’ll be weak and of little value. As I’ve earlier written, you and your client should almost always “go to the mat” if necessary to obtain complete discovery responses. This means time spent reviewing the crappy objections and responses, writing one of those spectacularly painful “meet and confer” letters, getting a spectacularly painful letter in response, possibly writing another and/or having an unpleasant telephone call, followed by a motion which you may or may not win because the discovery was crappy and overly broad in the first place. All of this is time-consuming and, therefore, expensive for your client. In most jurisdictions, moreover, the court has discretion to force the party who loses a discovery motion (which could be you) to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees. Ouch!

A second reason I try to make my discovery surgical relates to how I want to be viewed by my opponent. While there are certain times when, for strategic reasons, I want my opponent to view me as unsophisticated and/or unprepared, I usually desire to instill the opposition impression. Nothing shows I haven’t a clue more clearly than 100 unfocused interrogatories, most of which skirt the real issues in the case. On the other hand, well drafted discovery shows not only that you know how to practice law, but also that you know what facts will win or lose the case. If your opponent happens also to know what she is doing, she will take you more seriously throughout the case, including at important times like when you are mediating or discussing settlement. If, on the other hand, your opponent is a lawyer who has gotten in over his head, recognizing that you know what you are doing will make him that much more eager to resolve the case before trial. Fear of submitting a case to judge or jury can be huge leverage.

So that’s my spiel for why it makes sense to serve surgical discovery. What about the how? A couple of ideas. First, it should be no big mystery at the discovery stage what the major theories of liability or defenses will be. I recognize we often refine theories and defenses based upon what we learn in discovery, but the complaint and answer at least frame the case in a general way. I like to take the jury instructions for the theories and defenses and draft discovery that seeks facts (and documentary evidence) that will support or defeat each element of a cause of action or defense. I recognize this isn’t revolutionary, but it works.

In addition, I like to involve at least some of the expert witnesses who will ultimately consult and, potentially, testify on behalf of my client as early as I can in the case. By meeting with these experts earlier than later, I can understand the technical issues likely to be in dispute. I may involve the expert in drafting discovery requests that are likely to yield meaningful information. I recognize that involving an expert early in the case can be costly. On the other hand, early expert involvement can ultimately save your client money in lots of different ways, starting with drafting useful cost-effective discovery, and including explaining earlier than later how the case you and your client thinks is so good actually sucks on a technical level.

So, go on, be surgical with that . . . er . . . interrogatory.


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.


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