The unthinkable has happened: You’ve been sued.
You’ve spent the past several months explaining your care and treatment of the patient to your defense attorney. Now the plaintiff attorney wants to take your deposition.
Although a deposition is a routine part of a case (the defendant physician in a medical malpractice lawsuit is nearly always called on to give one), you’re anticipating the undertaking with understandable trepidation—maybe even fear.
There are significant differences between testifying in a deposition and testifying in a courtroom at trial. In this article, I offer 10 strategies for giving deposition testimony that strengthens your defense—or, at least, does not weaken it. In the next (March) issue of OBG Management, I will review tactics for giving testimony at trial.
“Do you want to prevail at trial? Here are 10 keys to effective testimony”
Andrew K. Worek, Esq (March 2012)
Out of the courtroom, still in the fire
A deposition is generally conducted in the conference room of the firm of one of the lawyers (defense or plaintiff attorney). It is an opportunity for the plaintiff lawyer to pose questions to the defendant physician. It is also an opportunity for the lawyer to challenge the physician’s answers, test his or her resolve, and collect sound bites that are unfavorable to the doctor’s defense. These sound bites can be read to the jury at trial.
On average, a physician deposition takes 3 or 4 hours to complete, although a duration of 6 to 8 hours is not uncommon. A deposition may begin in a relatively congenial atmosphere but devolve, at some point, to a highly contentious exchange.
Rather than leave the outcome of the deposition to chance, it is better to take a few considered preparatory steps and proceed judiciously during the deposition. Here are 10 strategies to help you come out on top.
1 Tell the truth
As a defendant, your credibility is the foundation upon which all of your past actions and forthcoming testimony—at deposition and at trial—will be judged. If you manage to protect and preserve that credibility, it will be a fortress of strength. If your credibility is compromised or breached, however, you will open yourself to attacks based on your decisions as a medical practitioner, and also upon your basic character as a human being.
Tell the truth, even when the truth may appear to cast you in an unfavorable light. On many occasions, I have seen a seemingly unfavorable issue become defensible as the evidence and case develop. The discovery of additional facts during the litigation may help strengthen the defense. Therefore, tell the truth, even if it appears to be unfavorable.
Many years ago, a mentor told me: “Honesty isn’t the best policy—it’s the only policy.”
As former Senator Alan Simpson once said: “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
Defending a lawsuit is a team effort. It requires cooperation between the physician, who brings medical knowledge and expertise to the table, and the defense attorney, who brings legal expertise. The more time you spend educating your attorney about the medicine, the better the result will be. And the more time the attorney spends raking you over the coals in preparation for the deposition, the better the outcome. If you view the education of your attorney and the overall defense of your case as a chore or inconvenience, you do yourself a great disservice.
Tell your defense attorney about any weaknesses that you perceive or suspect regarding the medical care rendered. It is better to develop a strategy to address a weakness rather than be surprised by or unprepared to answer a question on the issue during your deposition.
Provide your defense attorney with peer-reviewed literature and other reliable information about the medical care. Such information will help educate your attorney, may aid in defining the “standard of care,” and may be a source of potential differing views on the care rendered. Reliable literature will also alert you and your defense attorney to the potential alternative treatment theories that the plaintiff attorney is likely to raise during your deposition.
Make sure you clearly understand the meaning of “the standard of care” within the jurisdiction where your case is pending. Most jurisdictions permit a physician to be asked, point blank, “Doctor, did you meet the standard of care?” Responding that you don’t know what the definition of “standard of care” is or that you’re uncertain whether you met the standard of care would certainly be damaging to your defense.