Legal Commentary by Monte Vines

Anatomy of a Lawsuit Part 2–Discovery

[Anatomy articles provide a basic overview of the primary aspects of a lawsuit.]

The three main stages of a lawsuit are the pleadings, discovery and trial.  The discovery stage is to allow the parties to obtain the information and evidence they need to effectively pursue or defend or settle the case.

Legal claims depend on how the law applies to a particular set of circumstances.  There are a number of tools and strategies for obtaining the facts and evidence needed to understand that set of circumstances and resolve the case well.

Sources of Information

There are usually three general sources for the facts and evidence needed.  The first is yourself and those within your control, like your employees.  The second source is the adverse party and those within his control.  The third source is other parties not involved in the dispute.

Much of the information and documents you need can often be obtained informally.  Pulling together the facts you already know, searching your records, and interviewing your employees and searching their records can yield a wealth of good information.

Sometimes the adverse party and third parties are cooperative and willing to informally provide their information as well.  When you cannot get their information that way, or prefer to use more formal means, then the law provides several formal procedures for obtaining that information and evidence.

Discovery Tools

One of the main principles of the rules governing lawsuits is that disputes are best resolved when all parties have the opportunity to be fully informed about the facts and have all the relevant evidence to present or defend or settle the case.  So the rules provide several tools for obtaining the facts and evidence.  The main tools are:

  • Requests for Production of Documents—formal requests for another party in the case to produce the documents or other things in their possession or control that you describe, for your inspection and copying.
  • Interrogatories—written questions for another party in the case to answer in writing under oath.
  • Depositions—opportunities for the lawyers to question the parties or witnesses orally, under oath.  A verbatim transcript is created of the questions and answers by a court reporter.
  • Requests for Admissions—written requests for another party to admit specific facts. 

In most cases, these tools operate well and any problems are worked out between the attorneys.  When disputes arise over the use of these tools, or when parties or witnesses fail to respond as court rules require, the court can intervene and order that responses be made or control the discovery process so there is no abuse and it does not unfairly burden or damage a party or a witness.  If a party or witness refuses to obey a court order regarding discovery, the court can impose sanctions to enforce the discovery process.  These sanctions include monetary payments, summary determination of part or all of the claims in the case, and in unusual situations even jail time for a witness until he complies (such as a journalist who refuses to disclose a source when the law requires it).

The Key to the Case

These tools, and some less common ones, typically provide an opportunity to obtain all the information and evidence you need to fully understand the dispute and prepare for a court hearing to resolve it, or to settle it wisely.  There are costs involved in conducting discovery, so it is a judgment call as to what tools to use and how much to use them.  It depends on the size of the dispute and how important any particular witness or party’s information or testimony is to the case.

Many depositions last just a few hours, but some take much longer.  I once took a deposition that lasted several days.  It was the deposition of the plaintiff in a large case.  He was claiming that his large farming operation failed because some expensive farm equipment did not perform as advertised.  Modern farms are sophisticated operations, and his deposition was our main way of investigating the many other possible causes of the failure of his operation.

With so much information now in digital form, such as emails and computer files and text messages, possibly located on many different devices, gathering all the information needed for a case can be a challenge.  But without good information and evidence, it is very difficult to prepare a case for a successful trial or a good settlement.

The facts are what primarily determine how a legal dispute should be resolved.  So the discovery process can be the most important part of a case.

A printable version of this article can be found at Anatomy of a Lawsuit.

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