What Are Interrogatories and Ways to Answer Them
Interrogatories are a helpful discovery tool for obtaining written answers to questions directed to your opponent — which you can use to support your claims or defenses in a lawsuit.
If you are representing yourself ("pro se" or "pro per") in a lawsuit, your opponent will likely serve you with a set of interrogatories — requiring that you prepare responses and assert any applicable objections.
Additionally, you may want to prepare your own set of interrogatories to discover important information from your opponent — to help you at trial. This might include: witness information, documents, versions of events, facts underlying their claims, and more.
Whether you're the party sending out interrogatories or the one responding to them (you’ll likely be both at one point or another), this article discusses the basics of interrogatories, providing a general definition, tips on responding to (answering) interrogatories, and steps to help you craft your own.
Attorneys seeking practical litigation experience will also benefit from the discussion of interrogatories in this article.
What Are Interrogatories?
In legal terms, interrogatories are formal written requests — in the form of questions — issued by a party in a lawsuit to another party.
Requirements and rules for interrogatories differ among jurisdictions. Here are some general characteristics of interrogatories to keep in mind:
- Interrogatories are written questions;
- The receiving party must respond in writing to the interrogatories and may assert any applicable objections;
- Responses to interrogatories must be truthful and complete (and are made under oath); and
- There may be limits on how many interrogatories are allowable in your jurisdiction.
The Purposes and Advantages of Using Interrogatories
There are several ways to use interrogatories to your advantage in your case. Interrogatories can be used to:
- Lock in your opponent's (or witness’) version of facts — obtain their testimony under oath to discredit (impeach) their testimony if they change their story at trial;
- Preserve evidence: if a party is unavailable to testify at trial due to death or illness (often especially important with sick or elderly witnesses); and
- Discover strengths and uncover weaknesses in your own case so you can adequately prepare for settlement negotiations or trial.
Understanding the discovery process is critical to the success of a lawsuit. Learn more.
Disadvantages of Written Discovery
We've shared some of the valuable purposes of interrogatories, but there are some disadvantages — especially if you are representing yourself in the case.
- Written discovery often leads to discovery disputes — especially if your opponent hires a lawyer or simply doesn't want to answer your questions. If you're not armed with the legal knowledge to resolve disputes, you may never get adequate responses by your opponent.
- Interrogatories must follow a specific format — there are limits on the types of questions you can ask and the number of interrogatories you can serve to the opposing party. If you're representing yourself, you'll need to do some research to make sure your questions are within the bounds of the law — and get to the heart of the facts you need to prove your claims or defenses.
- If you are representing yourself, the opposing attorney may take advantage of your lack of discovery know-how to drag the discovery process out as long as possible — which might slow your progress and require you to spend additional time and effort countering your opponent’s stalling tactics.
- You may get more substantial responses to your questions, as well as insights into the testimony of the witnesses (and their credibility) by conducting an oral deposition rather than written discovery. Learn more about depositions.
Although written interrogatories do have some drawbacks, they can still provide crucial information, including key facts, positions, and identification of witnesses and documents. Just do some research to learn everything you can about the discovery process first.
Tips for Answering Interrogatories (Responding to Interrogatories)
If you’ve been served with a set of interrogatories, you must respond within the time limit provided by your state’s laws or rules so you don't face a motion by your opponent or monetary sanctions for failing to respond. Make sure you know the time-frame allotted in your jurisdiction, and don't wait until the last day to start preparing responses.
Although state laws do differ (make sure you follow them!), here are three common ways that parties might respond to written interrogatories, four if you count asking for an extension to respond.
- Respond completely to all the questions to the best of your knowledge without volunteering information not requested.
- Object to an interrogatory if one or more questions violate the rules of discovery — but answer the questions anyway subject to the objections. In many jurisdictions (but not necessarily all), doing so may preserve your right to object at trial if your case goes that far.
- Assert objections to the interrogatories without providing a further answer. This might be risky — the opposing attorney may file a motion to compel if your objections are not legally valid.
These sample questions are provided as examples in a fictitious case:
Sample question #1: Identify all persons who witnessed John Doe slip on a banana peel on October 24, 2019.
Sample question #2: State the name, job title, and duties of all employees or contractors in charge of maintaining the floor where John Doe fell on October 24, 2019.
Sample question #3: Identify all documents relating to maintenance or cleaning of the floor where John Doe fell, from October 1, 2019 to October 24, 2019.
Preparing Interrogatories to Your Opponent
If you are representing yourself in a lawsuit, sending out interrogatories can help you gather facts for your case. Always keep one goal in mind: to win your case. You'll want to prepare interrogatories that are polished, professional, and proper.
- Use simple English when asking your questions. Now is not the time to show your opponent how you have mastered the archaic language called "Legalese" — just write your questions in everyday language.
- Avoid ambiguous language. Words like "you," "himself," and "others" can mean more than one thing. Be specific about who or what you are asking.
- Have someone proofread your interrogatories before you serve them. This one simple step can help you avoid embarrassing typos or confusion that might allow your opponent to object to your interrogatories.
- Format the interrogatories properly according to the court rules in your jurisdiction. An improperly formatted set of interrogatories could give your opponent grounds for an objection and slow down the discovery process.
- Avoid overly narrow questions that may not get helpful or useful testimony and overly broad questions that are objectionable (but sometimes you may need a very narrow or broad question!).
- Define your terms. Provide definitions for key terms to make sure all your questions are clear, concise, and leave no room for confusion (or objections).
If you'd like to learn more about how to write excellent interrogatories with sample interrogatories (and sample responses), we've put together Written Discovery: Investigating and Proving Your Claims and Defenses.
The video-driven litigation tutorial dives deep into the discovery process and can help attorneys (representing a client) and parties who are representing themselves in a lawsuit gather the evidence they need to prevail at trial.