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Articles Posted in Trial Strategy

cross-examinationThe most important part of a personal injury trial is the plaintiff’s testimony.  Specifically, the most critical part of a trial is the personal injury plaintiff’s direct examination.  If it doesn’t go well when you are in total control of the process and the facts, it will be nearly impossible to get a favorable damages award. We believe in thoroughly preparing the plaintiff to testify, both on direct and cross-examination.  I would not be surprised to learn that our firm spends more time on direct examination preparation that any firm in Maryland.

Witness preparation is a broad term that covers any communication between a lawyer and a prospective witness done to get the most favorable possible substance or presentation of trial testimony.  It also helps the lawyer know precisely what the witness is going to say on direct examination.

By the time the trial draws near, most experienced personal injury lawyers will have a pretty good idea of what’s out there as far as potential cross-examination material. This comes from a variety of sources: interrogatory answers, medical records, deposition testimony, prior medical history, etc.  But you really do not know what someone is going to say until the tell you what they are going to say.  And, as experienced trial lawyers know, even then you are still not entirely sure what will come out of the witness’ mouth.

The most time consuming part of getting any case ready for trial is discovery. This is the process of the two sides learning (discovering, get it?) information about each other’s cases before trial. This is what the lawyers and clients spend their time doing for most of the year between when the case is filed and the trial.

Discovery happens two ways- by exchanging written material, and in person. In person discovery is usually in the form of a deposition, where witness testimony is taken under oath and transcribed for use later on. That’s not what this blog post is about.

Md-reporter

I am here to talk about written discovery, or more accurately, the often ridiculous objections I see used in an effort to avoid answering it. The two primary forms of written discovery are interrogatories and a request for production. Interrogatories are written questions to the other side that must be answered under oath. A request for production is kind of the same, except it is a set of written requests that the other side produce documents or other tangible things relevant to the case.

Here is a quote I saw recently that I think applies really well to trial work:

“Don’t let a win get to your head or a loss to your heart.”– from Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

Specifically, this is from the song “He Got Game” from the movie soundtrack of the same name. One thing about Chuck D., he always has something interesting to say.

I just reached a settlement in a case that was set for trial next week. Obviously that is great news for my client, who now has some closure on a difficult period in his life.

But memorializing the agreement and having the clerk remove the case from the docket doesn’t mean the end of my job when it comes to settlement.

I had subpoenaed three witnesses to appear for trial: an independent “bystander” witness, a traffic engineer from the State Highway Administration, and a police officer. I made sure to contact each of these witnesses as soon as the case resolved to let them know they would not need to appear. They really appreciated that I let them know. The traffic engineer in particular made it a point to let me know how often attorneys subpoena witnesses from his office and then do not let them know when the case settles. Then they travel to court for nothing.

Putting a bad pun in the title is always a great start to a blog post, right? Try the veal, I’m here all week.

But seriously, proving medical causation of an injury in a personal injury case nearly always requires expert medical testimony. There a few exceptions for objective injuries that would be obvious to a layperson (like cuts and bruises), but generally proving medical causation requires a physician to testify that within a reasonable degree of medical probability, the injury or medcial condition was causally related to the accident.

The most obvious source of this testimony is the plaintiff’s treating physician. There are strengths and weaknesses in using a treating physician as an expert witness. One of these can be that since you generally do not choose the treating physician, you are stuck with their qualifications, however good or bad they may be.

I’m 38. For many in my generation, when we hear the phrase “private investigator”, Tom Selleck playing Magnum, P.I. is what springs to mind. But in the real-world practice of law, there are certain times when a good private investigator can be invaluable, even if he isn’t a Ferrari driving ex-Navy SEAL.

One example is locating difficult to find witnesses. A few years ago we had a red light – green light case in Baltimore City where our client had a permanent crush injury to her ankle. The case was vigorously contested on liability, and the only locatable witnesses agreed that the defendant had a green light. So I got my investigator working on locating the other witnesses who were listed on the police report. He found one of them- an 11 year-old boy who had seen the accident happen from a friend’s porch that was located a short distance from the light. He confirmed that my client had entered the intersection on a green light.

We tried that case. The jury found the boy more credible than the adult witnesses, who had been drinking that afternoon. The jury awarded our client over a million dollars in damages- on a case we never could have won if we hadn’t found that witness.

Regular readers of this blog (Hi, Mom!) will probably remember that cross-examining defense medical experts on the issue of financial interest bias is a topic that I have discussed several times. That is because our lawyers believe that when an expert has a financial interest bias, that it is of vital importance to get that information before the jury, so they can fairly evaluate the wtiness’ testimony.

In Maryland, the most useful authority on the issue is contained in two appellate opinions: Wrobleski v. DeLara, 353 Md. 509, 727 A.2d 930 (1999), and Falik v. Hornage, 413 Md. 163, 991 A.2d 1234 (2010). The second one is a Miller & Zois case. Actually, two cases combined for appeal. One was handled in the trial court by my colleague Rod Gaston, the other by me, and I was appellate counsel in both. So we feel that our law firm is out on the leading edge in this issue.

One topic that often comes up in personal injury litigation is the issue of personal injury lawyers referring clients to particular medical providers. Defense lawyers always want to delve into this, on the theory that there is some wink and nod quid pro quo between the lawyer and the doctor that the referral will result in favorable testimony. I don’t know that this is neccessarily true. There are lots of good reasons referrals like this are made: many clients do not have health insurance to pay for treatment, Maryland PIP is only $2500 (and is often used up to replace lost wages), and many treatment providers will not accept patients who were involved in accidents.

A few months ago, I tried a case in Montgomery County Circuit court and got a great verdict. Shortly afterward, I received the defendant’s motion for a new trial. I read the motion, and discussed it with a few of the other lawyers in my office. None of us thought it was a strong motion, and we all believed it was likely to be denied. Until I got a hearing notice in the mail.

Well, I live in Baltimore County, near Towson. I have to be in the car by 7:30 if I hope to be in Rockville by 9 a.m., and I need to make alternative arrangements to get my daughter to daycare since they don’t open early enough to drop her off and still get to Rockville in time.

So the day of the hearing arrives, I make my arrangements, leave early, and drive the 1.5 hours to Rockville. Shortly before 9 a.m., I am sitting in the lobby outside the courtroom when our judge’s law clerk come out and lets me know that our judge was out sick, and the hearing would need to be rescheduled. Bummer, but O.K., everybody gets sick. I have had hearings rescheduled before because I got sick. It’s part of life. So we reschedule the hearing for the following Monday and I drive an hour back to my office.

Here is another great real-life trial preparation tip that I have forgotten myself in the past:

Check the weather the day before!

I am finalizing my preparations for a trial tomorrow in a car accident case in Baltimore County Cicuit Court. According to weather.com, there is a 60% chance of rain tomorrow morning. So my trial prep now includes making sure I remember my galoshes, raincoat and umbrella. It is hard to make a good first impression on the jury when you look like you wore your suit in the shower. From a performance perspective, it’s nearly impossible to be at your best when you have wet, cold feet. I know I look like a dork in my galoshes. A warm, dry dork. So I don’t care.

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