A deposition is a pretrial procedure where an attorney representing one party is able to ask a witness or the opposing party questions after the witness has been placed under oath. A court reporter is present, and the testimony is sworn. If the testimony is relevant to any of the issues in the case, that testimony could be read to a court or a jury during the trial. Obviously, this makes the deposition an important step on the way to trial.
Most attorneys will meet with their client prior to a deposition to make sure that their client understands how the deposition works. The general guidelines are pretty straightforward. Because you are under oath, it is critical that you tell the truth. If there is one way to kill your case, it is to be dishonest and a deposition. At the same time, you should only answer the question that is posed. Some attorneys feel that you may disclose something harmful to your case, but the more likely problem is that your testimony will simply be confusing if you talk too much.
Probably the biggest mistake witnesses make is guessing at an answer. This probably happens becuase the witness thinks the deposition is a test, or that is the time and place to prove their claim. However, if somebody guesses at an answer, and it turns out that guess is incorrect, an attorney, and more importantly, a jury, could conclude that the witness is trying to mislead the attorney, and the jury. If "I don't know" or "I don't remember" is the honest answer, then that's the answer the witness should give.
Sometimes, a witness might be pretty sure about the answer, but not certain. If a witness is not sure, then it is important that the attorney knows the witness is not entirely sure. Sometimes, witness might say "to the best of my memory," or "as far as I can recall." This lets the attorney know that the witness is trying to respond to the question, but is not quite certain.
Depositions allow attorneys to explore a broad array of issues. The rules allow attorneys to ask questions that are "reasonably calculated" to lead to discovery of relevant evidence. "Relevant evidence" means evidence that could either prove or disprove an issue in the case. In a personal injury claim, or auto accident injury claim, the injured party's health history is going to be explored. So, if you were involved in prior car accident, and suffered a similar injury, that is fair game. Any prior medical treatment to the area of the body injured in the car accident is also something an attorney can ask about.
Much of what is asked in a deposition may not be relevant to the claim, and it will never come up at trial. However, if a witness intentionally withholds information, or gives testimony that is inconsistent with some prior statement, including reports to doctors, then what may have been previously not relevant to the case, becomes relevant. This is because a witness's credibility is always relevant.
Although depositions are an important part of the case, our experience is that it is difficult for a witness to ruin their case with a deposition. It happens, but it takes a lot of effort.
If you have questions about an auto injury claim or any other kind of injury claim in Oregon, give us a call at 503-325-8600. We answer these questions every day.