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4 Ways to Answer Questions When You Are Cross Examined in a Civil Trial

Actually, there are five and I'll share the 5th one with you as bonus at the end.

Let's say you sued your doctor.
For medical malpractice.
You believe he was careless.

You believe his carelessness caused you harm.
You claim that your injuries are permanent.
You sued him.

Claiming that he violated the basic standards of good medical care.
You went to the best attorney you could find.
He hired a medical expert who reviewed your records and confirmed you had a good case.

But your doctor disagrees.
He says he did nothing wrong.
He says whatever he did, didn't cause your injuries.

He also argues that you contributed to your own injuries!
Then he says that your injuries are not as bad as you claim.
How does that make you feel?

Since your doctor is refusing to accept responsibility for what happened to you, your case proceeds forward.
The doctor refuses to negotiate.
He refuses to settle.

That means your case is going to trial.
Two to three years down the road, your case finally comes up for trial.
That's how long it takes to get to trial here in New York.

During your trial, your lawyer calls you to the witness stand to testify.
He spends a great deal of time asking you open-ended questions.
"Mrs. Jones, tells us what happened then..."

"What did you do next..."
"What did he say?"
Questions that answer 'who', 'what', 'when', 'where', 'how' and 'why'.

Finally, your lawyer is done asking you questions.
You're relieved.
But only for a moment.

Because now it's time for the defense lawyer to get up and start cross examining you.
The lawyer asks you to make a few promises before he starts asking you real questions.
"Mrs. Jones, I'm going to ask you a series of questions that only call for a yes or no answer..."

"If you can answer 'yes' or 'no' do you promise to only answer 'yes' or 'no'?"
"If you cannot answer my question 'yes' or 'no' do you promise to tell me you can't answer the question 'yes' or 'no'?
"If you don't understand my question, instead of explaining why you can't understand it, do you promise to simply answer that you don't understand it?

"Then, I'll ask another question, Ok?"

The defense lawyer is setting you up.
He knows you've been told to explain your answers.
He knows you'll do everything you can to argue with him about the wording of his questions.

He wants to set a trap so that if you DO go beyond a 'yes' or 'no' answer, he just has to remind you of your simple promise that you made only moments ago.

Here are the FOUR ways you can answer questions during cross examination...at least these are the four ways the opposing attorney WANTS YOU TO ANSWER...

  1. YES
  2. NO
  3. I DON'T KNOW
  4. I CAN'T ANSWER THAT QUESTION

That's it.
Four simple, short answers.
The attorney who cross examines you wants to be in control.

He wants to tell a story.
He wants to control what you say and how you say it.
And that's Ok.

Why?
Because that's what really good trial attorney's do.
Cross examination is an opportunity for the opposing attorney to challenge what you've said.

It's a chance to expose inconsistencies in what you've said.
It's a chance to search for the truth.
It's a chance to show you may have lied.

Why is that a big deal?
Because your credibility means everything at trial.
If the jury finds that you are not believable, you've likely sunk your case.

If the defense lawyer can show that you've lied about something important, you've got problems.

A really good trial attorney will ask you short, leading questions during cross examination.
"Mrs. Jones, isn't it true you saw Dr. Gold on January 1 at his office?"
"On that first visit you complained of a lump in your left breast, true?"

"You complained that this lump grew in size over the past month, right?"
"Dr. Gold examined you, correct?"
"He did a breast exam with you lying down, true?"

"He did a breast exam with you sitting up, correct?"
"He then told you to get a sonogram of your left breast, right?"
"Then he told you to get a mammogram, correct?"

"Then he referred you to a breast surgeon to have a biopsy done, right?"
What types of questions are these?
They are leading questions.

Questions that only call for a 'yes' or 'no' answer.
They have only one fact per question.
None of those questions call for any explanation.

If done correctly, the opposing attorney should never ask you a question that allows you to explain ANYTHING.
If he does, he loses control of the questioning and the jury then focuses their attention back on YOU.
He doesn't want that.

The opposing lawyer wants the jury focused on him while cross examining you.

Ok, let's get back to the different ways to answer questions on cross exam...

Yes, no, I don't know or I can't answer that question.
What about "I don't recall?"
That's a good response as well.

That's the fifth way to respond to a question from the opposing attorney.
Here's another way to answer that let's the jury know you're sticking to the ground rules on how you've been asked to answer these questions but also lets them know you have more to explain.

"Mrs. Jones, did your doctor discharge you from his medical practice?"
"I can't answer that question yes or no, but if you'll allow me to explain, I can tell you exactly why that happened."
Of course the defense attorney will not want you to explain anything, nor will he give you the opportunity to do so.

But what have you done by answering that way?
Two things.
You've signaled to the jury that there's more to that answer than simply answering yes or no.

You've also signaled to your attorney that when he gets up to ask you questions again (known as re-direct examination) that he should ask you to explain your answer on this topic.
"Mrs. Jones, during cross examination you were asked by my adversary whether you were discharged from the doctors' office. Tell us in your own words what happened that led to that outcome..."

To learn more about cross examination strategies, I invite you to watch the video series below...


Gerry Oginski
NY Medical Malpractice & Personal Injury Trial Lawyer