If you haven’t already, please read the first post “Four Keys To Alabama Plaintiffs Being Prepared For Depositions – Background” and the second post “First Key To Alabama Plaintiffs Being Prepared For Depositions – Hear The Question”.
So, we heard the question asked. Does this mean we automatically answer? No. We need to understand the question.
Let’s go back to our police station example. The detective is trying to pin a murder on you (we will trust you did NOT do it!) and he asks you a question. Very loudly. No doubt about you hearing it. So that’s it, right? Well, what if the question is asked in Latin and you (like us) have no idea how to speak Latin? Can you truthfully say “Yes” or “No” or anything else other than “I don’t understand the question”?
OK, maybe that’s a silly example but the point is valid – you can’t swear or affirm you are telling the truth when you don’t understand the question!
What if the detective asks you a question in English but uses two words that you don’t understand. What should you do? Keep in mind a deposition (or a detective interview) is not a conversation – it is an interrogation. The difference is the goal of a conversation is to understand each other. The goal of an interrogation is to get information (that is answers) out of the person being interrogated. Particularly to get admissions or confessions.
So, if you don’t understand certain words and you still say “No” or whatever your answer is, and that fits the detective’s picture of how the crime occurred, will he be concerned about whether you understood every word? Probably not.
For example – “Did you perpetrate a fraud to gain access to the victim’s domicile?” Most of us don’t use “perpetrate” and “domicile” in every day conversation – if you don’t know what those words mean, you cannot truthfully answer without getting an explanation.
Similarly, in a civil deposition you might be asked, “Do you agree that if you saw the truck veering into your lane and you did not immediately swerve off the side of the road and dodge the telephone pole, you would be guilty of contributory negligence?” Did you hear that? First step. Always. Did you understand it? Most people who are not lawyers and even a lot of lawyers who don’t practice in Alabama (we are one of only a few states that use “contributory negligence”) don’t know what contributory negligence is. How can we agree (“Yes”) or disagree (“No”) if we don’t know what every word is? We can’t. [By the way this question has other problems but we are focusing just on this second key – understanding].
What if we understand every word but not the question as a whole? Here’s an example – “Did you tell him that after you saw the man that he said to the other guy that second man had a knife?” Did you hear the question? First step. Always. Yes we heard it. Do we understand it? No – which “he” and which “man” and which “guy” is the detective talking about?
OK, bottom line – what do we do if we don’t understand either a word or the question as a whole? Just like with not hearing – we ask the lawyer to repeat the question and rephrase it or explain what a word means that we don’t understand. It is simple but so powerful – we don’t answer questions that we don’t understand as otherwise how will we know we are telling the truth? No matter what the other lawyer may do – what facial expressions – what he or she might say – you do not have any obligation to answer any question you do not understand. If for some reason the lawyer will not make it understandable, you can simply say, “I don’t understand your question so I can’t answer it.”
Sometimes clients are reluctant to say they didn’t understand a question because they fear it would make them look not smart. First, it does not matter what the other lawyer thinks of you. What matters is your testimony must be truthful. Second, most questions that are not understandable are that way because the lawyer asked questions in a confusing way – not because you lack any intelligence!
If, however, you hear and understand the question, the third key is to take time to really think about what the truthful answer is. This is covered in “Third Key To Alabama Plaintiffs Being Prepared For Depositions – Take Time To Think About The Truthful Answer”.