Anyone who has taken or even attended a deposition is at least somewhat familiar with the litany of admonitions that are customary before the substantive examination begins. These include explaining to the deponent, and generally asking her to confirm her understanding, how a deposition works, i.e., don’t answer unless you understand the question, use words not gestures when responding, etc.
I attended a deposition last week of two of my client’s experts for an upcoming trial. The questioning attorney, obviously reading from an outline or script that he either drafted or was provided to him, attempted to get both experts to buy into the following:
“Q. If you answer a question without telling me you didn’t understand it, I’m going to take the position — if you try to later say you didn’t understand the question — that you did and you were trying to get out from under the answer. Do you understand that?”
In each instance, although I objected, my deponent ultimately agreed with the statement. I expect if my opponent attempts to use the testimony at trial the judge will probably sustain my objections. But he might not. Which leads me to think I should have better prepared both deponents (both of whom, by the way, are seasoned expert witnesses, very familiar with the deposition process). I will certainly prepare future witnesses for this kind of question, particularly by this particular attorney (whom I do generally respect for his frequent creative, outside-the-box thinking and approach to his cases).
What’s the problem?
The question asks the witness, in a complete vacuum, to buy into a set of circumstances and motivations that have no basis. Folks who have spent time in the world of depositions know that this isn’t a perfect science. Questions are only rarely (if ever) perfect. However, even seasoned experts get swept into the unconscious desire to “help out” the examiner, sometimes answering questions that weren’t asked, were very poorly asked, or supplying missing terms that help a problem question make sense. It’s not fair to ask that witness, who later explains a “bad” answer by suggesting she did not fully understand the question when it was originally answered, to agree in advance that any such effort is really “trying to get out from under the answer.” No.
Hearing a witness try to “back pedal” out of a bad deposition response by suggesting she didn’t understand the question when it was first asked is generally going to be viewed with suspicion by the jury. This is particularly true if it happens more than once. So, it is not a huge issue how the deponent answers the question above. However, the admonitions generally occur at the start of the deposition. If an examiner asks questions like that at the outset and the deponent answers without realizing words are being stuffed into her mouth, there is a good chance that questions and testimony are coming later in the deposition that will create a dangerous record.
So be on the lookout!