deposition

63 – Sonia Rodriguez – “You Got Me”: Discrediting Defense Paid Opinion Witnesses

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Sonia Rodriguez for an overview of deconstructing defense-paid opinion witnesses. They highlight many of their favorite strategies to use when dealing with a witness who won’t answer your questions, their favorite unexpected “gifts” from witnesses, and the importance of why someone becomes a defense-paid opinion witness in the first place. This episode is full of shocking real-life examples you don’t want to miss.

Michael begins the episode by highlighting the defense strategy to hire someone to discredit their client. He asks Sonia, “What do you do to deal with this?” Sonia describes the first action she takes, which is reviewing what organizations they show they are affiliated with on their CV (curriculum vitae). Most professional organizations have ethical guidelines which these witnesses must abide by. She’s found success in displaying these guidelines to the witness during the deposition and using them to prevent the witness from stating biased information.

Michael then describes the common narrative these witnesses all portray which every plaintiff attorney listening is sure to relate to. Any injury from the crash goes away in 6-12 weeks, but any injury from 10 years ago is most certainly the cause of everything today, even if they haven’t been to a doctor for it in 9 years. Sonia has combatted this in medical witnesses by focusing heavily on the client’s description of pain. Most doctors will admit that the patient’s description of pain is a very important part of the diagnosis. She uses this information to put the witness in a position of saying, “the records aren’t adequate,” which does not play well with the jury.

The conversation then shifts to the difficult but highly effective strategy of turning the defense paid opinion witness into your witness. Sonia explains why this is so difficult to do successfully, but has maneuvered these difficulties by focusing her depos on what she knows she can get from them. She shares an example of this where she was able to build up the witness’s credibility, then use it to get some simple, clear concessions.

On the other hand, Michael says his primary goal in every defense paid opinion witness depo is to make them his witness. Instead of fighting with them in an area where he does not have credibility, he spends his time researching the witness, reading prior depositions, and trying to find what they will give you based off those prior experiences.

Michael elaborates further on the importance of reading past testimonies by sharing a shocking example with a biomechanical engineer who claimed his client could not possibly have a herniated disc from the crash. Before trial, Michael read several of his previous depositions and went through all of the literature the witness cited in the case. He then shares an example of how he used those prior depos to discredit the witness, how his voir dire helped him do this while also relating to the jury, and why reading the literature can help your case.

Sonia wholeheartedly agrees and gives her real world experience using the literature to your advantage. She shares an example where a neurosurgeon used a study about the prevalence of herniated discs to claim her client’s pain wasn’t caused by the crash. After reading the article, Sonia found that it only referred to a specific type of herniated disc, which was not the type her client had. After revealing this, all the witness could say was, “You got me.”

Another all too familiar roadblock is the witness who just won’t answer your questions. While Sonia and Michael both agree this will always be a barrier, they both share insightful techniques on how you can overcome this. Sonia does this by always recording the testimony, so she can show the jury the witness was refusing to cooperate or concede to basic things. Michael then offers another strategy he employs with uncooperative witnesses – using basic, fair questions in a true or false format. While you may still need to ask the same question 10 times to get a response, you can always cut out the first 9 asks. The key to this is to never appear mad or frustrated because it doesn’t present well to the jury. Sonia agrees with this strategy and points out how well-suited it is for a Zoom deposition.

On a lighter note, Michael and Sonia share their favorite unexpected “gifts” they’ve received from paid opinion witnesses. Sonia details her experience of utilizing past testimony to prove an orthopedic surgeon was simply touting lies for money and highlights the importance of sharing information with other members of the plaintiff’s bar. Michael’s favorite “gift” was an ex-sheriff providing testimony on a drunk driving case, who made an incredibly racist statement in his deposition. The judge insisted the case not be made about race, which Michael had no issuing agreeing to. But when Michael asked the sheriff the same question at trial (assuming the witness had been prepped not to make the same mistake), he made the SAME racist statement he made in the deposition.

While these unexpected “gifts” are a huge blessing, they’re hard to come by on most cases. Sonia and Michael conclude the conversation by exploring why people become paid opinion witnesses in the first place. He accurately states, “This isn’t why people want to become doctors or engineers.” Michael explains how many of them either just weren’t good at their jobs or experienced an injury that rendered them unable to perform surgery.

This podcast also covers using before and after witnesses, focusing on the symptoms instead of the diagnosis, whether or not to “go in for the kill” in a deposition, verifying the qualifications of a witness, and so much more.

61 – Malorie Peacock – Elite Litigation: Strategies to Maximize the Value of Every Case

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael is joined by his law partner Malorie Peacock for a discussion of strategies they use to maximize the value of every case. They cover steps to take when you first get a case, storyboarding, gathering evidence, conducting a targeted discovery, the benefits of spending 3+ uninterrupted hours on a case, and so much more.

Michael and Malorie start off the episode with a conversation about what you should do when you first get a case to end up with the maximum value. They both agree you need to conduct a thorough investigation right away. Michael describes how he used to believe if he spent money on a case, he had to get a settlement out of it and get his money back. He would spend $20,000 to investigate and find out it was a tough liability theory but still file the lawsuit, do a ton of work, and spend even more money just to end up with a reduced settlement value and an unhappy client. He has since learned to write off these cases so he can spend his time and money on a case with potential for a better outcome. Malorie then explains how you can research the case yourself if you really don’t want to spend money early on, but Michael and Malorie both agree it’s best to hire an expert as soon as possible.

The discussion shifts to the topic of storyboarding early on in a case. Malorie explains how you plan out exactly how you want things to unfold, but you don’t need all the information right away to plan for a deposition. She describes her highly effective outlining strategy of placing information into “buckets” based on what she needs to talk to each of the witnesses about, constantly asking herself, “What do I really need? What makes this impactful for a jury or not?”

Michael then urges listeners not to appear nitpicky to the jury by bringing up non-causal violations. He shares an example of a different lawyer’s case with a truck driver who did not know any English. While truck drivers are required to speak enough English to understand road signs, the crash had nothing to do with this. That is, until they dug deeper and discovered a massive, shocking flaw in the trucking company’s training procedures.

While many of these strategies can be effective in making the case about the company and maximizing case value, Malorie emphasizes how you can’t ignore what happened in the crash. If it’s the worst company in the world but they had nothing to do with the crash, it doesn’t matter. Michael argues you should always try to make it a systems failure, but if you investigate and there is no credible story, you need to change course. They then discuss other places to look for systems failures which are often overlooked, including the company’s post-crash conduct. Finding these creative case stories and being willing to change course if you find a better story are key to maximizing case value.

Malorie brings up that there are lots of places to gather evidence, many of which are often overlooked. Michael urges listeners to go out to the crash site and walk around, look for cameras, and talk to people whenever possible. He also sees Freedom of Information Act requests as a valuable asset in any case involving an industry with regulations. You can see more than just past crashes, audits, and violations. He explains how sometimes you will see a trucking company who earned the highest score in a safety audit because they promised to fix the issues they had, which they never fixed. Malorie accurately replies, “That sounds like gross negligence.” They both discuss other types of companies who break promises often, and how showcasing this can be a valuable tool in showing the jury this company didn’t just make one mistake, they purposefully lied and tried to cover it up.

Michael and Malorie then discuss how they conduct a targeted and specific discovery. Michael shares how forms can be useful, but adds that you need to look at the issues in your case and adjust those forms accordingly. He describes his strategy of conducting a root cause analysis to dig deep into the reasons a crash may have occurred, a strategy which is incredibly useful for any plaintiff’s attorney. Michael and Malorie then agree on the importance of reviewing depo notes immediately after the depo is concluded and share a useful practice tip to make this process more efficient. After reviewing depo notes, Malorie highlights that many attorneys are hesitant to send a request for production for just one document. She disagrees with this thought process and has found doing this shows opposing counsel you know what you are doing and can even put you in favor with the judge.

Malorie then asks Michael to elaborate on a strategy they use at their firm based off the book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution”, where you block out a 3-hour window of time each week to brainstorm on a case. Michael explains how this time does not include depo prep, discovery, or other “defensive” items, but is meant to be spent “playing offense.” Attorneys are directed to do something to purposely move the case towards resolution and increase the value of that resolution. Michael then emphasizes the importance of these being three uninterrupted hours, because “It takes time for things to gel.” If you spend 30 minutes, 6 times in one week on the case, you have to refresh your memory of all the documents and details, and never dive deep into the critical thinking this activity is meant to promote. This is why Malorie spends the first part of her time reviewing every important document in the case, and inevitably this process leads her to ask questions and explore the answers. She urges listeners to not be intimidated by this process, and notes you don’t need to have a specific goal in mind besides to understand the case better and seek answers to the question, “What is this case about?”

Another strategy they use at their firm is “Workdays.” This is where they gather 3-6 people, including both attorneys and non-attorneys, to spend an entire day working through one case together. Malorie emphasizes the importance of everybody participating and being committed to spending this time on the case at hand. This doesn’t work if people come and go or try to discuss a different case. Michael adds that you don’t need an 8-attorney firm to do this. He’s found success in scheduling once-a-month lunches with peers and implementing a similar strategy.

Malorie has also found utilizing focus groups early-on in the case to be critical in understanding juror perceptions about the immediate facts of a case. Michael agrees this strategy can provide valuable insight into the direction you should take a case story, what questions you need to answer and how your client and experts appear to jurors. They then discuss a time they hosted a focus group where only three people attended, which shockingly ended up being one of the most useful focus groups of the entire case.

To wrap up the episode, Malorie notes “You’re not maximizing the value of a case by wasting time on it.” Michael urges listeners to look at each case individually and carefully, then triage it. Some cases are just not great, whether it be because of tough liability, a great recovery, or a client who presents poorly. Malorie aptly concludes by saying, “Maximizing value doesn’t mean getting $20 million on every case… It’s about allocating your time and resources carefully.”

21 – Sonia Rodriguez – Winning (or Losing) a Case in Deposition

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With overwhelmingly positive feedback from our listeners, TLN Table Talk podcast is back again! This time featuring fellow partner at Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock, Sonia Rodriguez, for a discussion mainly focused on how to win (or lose) a case in a deposition.

Michael is quick to note that many cases tend to settle before going to trial, making depositions an integral part of the process. Oftentimes it comes down to knowing the documents better than the defense attorneys while also knowing the right documents to order, which in many cases the defense may not have. It can also come down to a witness’s ability to know and articulate the truth in a deposition, which is frequently a direct reflection on those who have helped to prepare the witness (defense or plaintiff).

So how do Michael and Sonia prepare for depositions? Sonia explains her strategy of always looking back on the jury charge to see what exactly she is trying to gain from a witness, scour the defense record from production to find nuggets of useful information, dig into the footnotes, fine print, and back of pages to find what others might miss. She has also found social media to be useful to learn as much as you can on the person being deposed including who their friends and other contacts are, companies they’ve worked for, and digging in to find info on company manuals or other ways to authenticate them as an authority coming from a witness. Michael, on the other hand, points out the importance of networking and collaborating with other plaintiff’s lawyers as “we’re good at getting things and sharing information” such as prior admissions, reports, or testimony. There’s likely nothing more embarrassing for a witness, especially paid ones than to be cross-examined with contradictory testimony they gave in the past. Sonia, who recently had a deposition with a defense doctor, shares how his past testimony was the exact opposite of what he was testifying to in her case, which obviously played to her favor.

When it comes to the right length of a deposition, Sonia shares her wish to someday be able to take a short depo, but currently has her attention to detail and thoroughness to “blame” for the style of her depositions, one which sometimes drives opposing counsel mad. She tends to feel unsatisfied leaving a depo if she hasn’t covered a lot of ground, knowing the jury will likely not hear most of it. She has also found that many times when she’s taking a deposition, she’s not just doing a trial depo of a witness, but also trying to prepare in advance for a summary judgment response and how they can also be helpful to lay the groundwork for what she might need from another witness. In contrast, Michael prides himself on short but thorough depositions stating how it really depends on the witness and subject matter. He also admits the danger of taking shorter depositions in relation to “having a beginner’s mind” vs. the “curse of knowledge” where you might already know something, the defense already knows it, and the defense witness knows it, but the jury does not, and could lead to talking over the jury with jargon they might not understand. Both agree 100% no matter how you approach a deposition, you need to be actively engaged in listening to the responses and not just running down questions on an outline where you would likely miss the truly important parts of what the witness is saying, or not saying, which could make your case.

The conversation shifts to a lively debate heard in many firms of weighing the idea of “going for the kill” in the deposition vs. saving things for trial when you know the witness will be there in person. With different experiences from both Sonia and Michael prior to them partnering, each brings a unique perspective to the table from their mentors as well as from their personal experiences. Of course, they agree these tactics both have their place, but Michael also brings up the point how oftentimes with expert witnesses, if they don’t know something at a deposition, they tend to come to trial more prepared with a response.

Michael and Sonia jam pack the second half of their discussion with everything from preparing their own clients for deposition, videotaping depositions, deposing the other side’s experts, guiding medical experts to slow down their testimony while not losing the jury with industry terminology, and exceptions to all of the above.

Trial Lawyer Nation plans to do more “Table Talks” in the future, as this podcast has always been about inclusive learning for all in our industry, which includes learning from each other! Please keep submitting your questions, comments, and topic suggestions to podcast@triallawyernation.com; and be sure to like, share, and subscribe to get the latest from the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast!

Find out more about Michael Cowen here.

Find out more about Sonia Rodriguez here.

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