Early Stages of Discovery in Personal Injury Cases
Discovery refers to the process during which the plaintiff and defendant exchange evidence that supports their respective claims and defenses. Discovery in personal injury cases and medical malpractice cases can be especially demanding for plaintiffs who often receive medical treatment from many different providers over the course of months or even years and must provide all relevant records.
Discovery commences soon after the Summons & Complaint is served on the defendant and the defendant files an Answer. In order to be ready for the defendant’s initial discovery demands, your attorney will usually instruct you very early on in your case to begin gathering all potential discovery documents associated with your claim. He may also have you fill out HIPAA forms authorizing the release of your records from medical providers who treated you in connection with your injuries. It’s always wise to save any items such as photographs, receipts, invoices, bills, etc. so that you can turn them over to your attorney if and when she requests them. This will expedite the process and keep your case moving.
The Most Commonly Used Discovery Tools
Discovery in personal injury cases usually takes one of five basic forms: (1) interrogatories, (2) requests for admission, (3) requests for document production, (4) independent medical examinations, and (5) depositions.
1) Interrogatories are written questions that are drafted in advance by counsel and served on an adversary. They are intended to extract information from the adversary regarding their position on specific issues in the case. It’s important to understand that all responses to interrogatories are deemed to be given under oath, with the expectation of truthfulness and accuracy. Most interrogatories will designate a time deadline for the response (i.e. 30 days for example).
2) Requests for admission are exactly what they sound like- they are requests for a party to admit or deny facts about the case. Penalties can be imposed for not answering, not answering truthfully, and answering late. In many situations, a party’s failure to respond or deny can be deemed by the court as an implicit admission. Generally speaking, requests for admission are only used for the purpose of establishing obvious or simple facts in a case. Once an admission is given by a party, it eliminates the need for any further discovery on that particular issue.
3) Requests for document production are also fairly self-explanatory. Simply put, they are demands for documentation that the plaintiff intends to rely on to support his claims. These requests are used extensively by defendants in personal injury and medical malpractice cases to obtain copies of the plaintiff’s medical records (i.e. summaries of surgical procedures, results of diagnostic tests, physical therapy logs, doctor’s notes, etc.). Beyond medical documents, the requests may call for other items, for instance photographs of an accident scene, bills/receipts from automobile repair work, inventory reports, business records, etc.
4) Independent medical examinations (“IME’s”) may also be requested by a defendant in a personal injury case. Typically, the plaintiff will rely on the testimony of one or more medical professionals who will testify in his favor regarding the nature and cause of his injuries. The IME is a response tactic employed by the defense to have its own medical expert review the plaintiff’s medical files and give an “independent” opinion regarding the severity of the injury and/or whether it was causally related to the accident in question. The defendant’s insurance carrier will often require the plaintiff be examined by a doctor of its choosing.
5) Finally, depositions are in-person question & answer sessions involving the attorney for one party and a witness for the other party. The transcript from the session is usually recorded by a court reporter who is present at the deposition table. Depending on the complexity of the case (as well as other factors such as the attorney’s questioning style, the witness’ temperament, language barriers, etc.), depositions may be very short in duration or take several days to complete. Sometimes the attorneys may agree to conduct the depositions of all parties on the same day, while in other situations the sessions may be broken up into parts. Regardless of their particular format, depositions are usually the most important part of the discovery process because of how profoundly they can impact the strength of one’s case. For instance, if a personal injury plaintiff presents herself very well during a deposition and comes across as a strong, convincing witness with legitimate bodily injury claims, opposing counsel may be more inclined to settle rather than proceed to trial. On the other hand, if the deponent’s testimony is riddled with inconsistencies, vagueness, and unclear responses, it may be a sign of a weak case.
In addition to parties, expert witnesses are often deposed in personal injury cases. Sometimes their deposition testimony is used instead of live testimony in court.
Conclusion of Discovery & Summary Judgment
At the end of the discovery process, the defense will evaluate the relative strength/weakness of the claims and defenses that have been asserted by both sides in light of the now-available evidence. The defense may then elect to file a motion for summary judgment, which is a final attempt to convince the judge to dispose of the case based on what has been revealed during discovery. However, if the court determines that the evidence has raised triable questions of fact that can only be resolved by a jury, the judge will deny the defendant’s motion and schedule the case for trial.
As tedious and drawn-out as it may end up being in some cases, discovery is a crucial phase in the personal injury litigation timeline. Discovery in personal injury cases may last anywhere from several weeks to over a year, depending on the complexity of the case as well as the court’s own rules concerning discovery deadlines and extensions. As with any other aspect of your case, it’s always best to consult your attorney if you have questions regarding the specifics of the discovery process.
If you or a loved one has been seriously injured in an accident, call The Law Offices of Haytham Faraj, PLLC at (800) 809-1581 or (312) 635-0800 to speak with an experienced Chicago personal injury attorney. Your initial consultation is free.