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Interrogatories

Rules Governing Interrogatories

Rule 1.340(a) provides the following with regard to the timing for submitting and responding to interrogatories. Interrogatories can be served on a plaintiff any time after the action is commenced. Interrogatories may be served on a defendant or any other party “with or after service of process and the initial pleading.” A party served with interrogatories has thirty days from the date of service to serve its responses, except that a defendant has forty five days from the date the service of process and the complaint to serve answers. In other words, a defendant is not required to answer any interrogatories within the first forty five days after they have become a party in the case.

Rule 1.340(a) limits the number of interrogatories any party may service on another party to thirty questions, including subparts. Products liability cases are very complex cases, and in many cases, the plaintiff will be unable to discover all relevant information without exceeding this limit. Leave to serve more than thirty interrogatories will only be granted upon motion to the court and for good cause shown.

Additionally, Rule 1.340(a) requires that “[if] the supreme court has approved a form of interrogatories for the type of action, the initial interrogatories shall be in the form approved by the court.” The Florida Supreme Court has approved six sets of form interrogatories for negligence, automobile negligence and medical malpractice cases. The general negligence forms are required to be used in products liability cases in which one of the causes of action is in negligence. The negligence form interrogatories can be found in Appendix I “Standard Interrogatories Forms” to Forms for use with the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. There are twenty-two standard interrogatories that must be propounded to defendants in negligence cases, leaving only 8 additional interrogatories on strict liability, warranty, financial, bad faith or any other issues. For this reason, should a plaintiff choose this method of discovery over depositions and requests for production of documents, for example, it will almost always be necessary to seek leave of the court to promulgate additional interrogatories in products liability cases. When filing a motion for leave to serve additional interrogatories, counsel should attach a copy of the additional interrogatories to support the “good cause” requirement.

Non-standard interrogatories should be drafted as directly and concisely as possible. Unnecessary words and phrases in interrogatories generally act as qualifiers that give the responding party “wiggle room” in their responses.

Scope of Inquiry

The general scope of discovery for all forms of discovery including interrogatories is defined in Rule 1.280(b). Rule 1.280(b)(1) provides that, unless the court issues an order changing the scope of discovery:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the subject matter of the pending action, whether it relates to the claim or defense of the party seeking discovery or the claim or defense of any other party, including the existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any books, documents, or other tangible things and the identity and location of persons having knowledge of any discoverable matter. It is not ground for objection that the information sought will be inadmissible at the trial if the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

The term “reasonably calculated” has been held to mean that that a causal connection between the information sought in the interrogatory and evidence relevant to the issues in the case must be apparent to the court.1 This scope is quite broad and objections based on relevance are difficult to support.

Rule 1.340(b) further defines the scope of discovery specifically for interrogatories by clarifying that an interrogatory is not objectionable merely because the answer would involve an opinion or contention that relates to a fact or calls for a conclusion or asks for information not within the personal knowledge of the party. This rule reduced the extent to which defendants could avoid discovery by claiming “no personal knowledge.”

There is an exception to this broad scope when the discovery sought is on jurisdictional issues. Traditionally, Florida courts did not allow any jurisdictional discovery until the court had made a final determination about whether it had jurisdiction. In 1992, the Florida Supreme Court followed federal precedent and held that discovery on jurisdictional issues is permissible2 ; however, the discovery that will be allowed is very limited in order to protect defendants over whom the court may eventually find it has no jurisdiction. Jurisdictional interrogatories should be related to facts and circumstances bearing on the question of that jurisdiction and should not go into the merits of the case.

Objections

Manufacturers in products liability cases can be expected to file objections and, in many cases can be expected to state the same laundry list of objections to every interrogatory, including that they are vague, unreasonably burdensome, oppressive, embarrassing, expensive or the information sought is privileged, or the interrogatory is not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. In products liability cases, many legitimate interrogatories meet objections on the grounds that the information sought is a trade secret. The burden of proof is in the party objecting to interrogatories to show the court that grounds exist to sustain the objection. However, the burden is on the party propounding the interrogatories to schedule a hearing on any objections.

Rule 1.380(a)(3) prohibits parties from giving “evasive or incomplete” answers to any discovery request, including interrogatories. In State Road Dept. v. Florida East Railway Company, 212 So.2d 315 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1968), the Third DCA held that a party may not, in response to an interrogatory, refer to other pleadings, documents or affidavits unless they are signed by the person answering the interrogatories. Defendant manufacturers should not, therefore, be permitted to answer an interrogatory by referring to a report from its expert or a thick document in which the plaintiff is expected to find an answer (see discussion below regarding the exception to this rule created by Florida Rule 1.340(c)).

When the response to an interrogatory is an objection, the party who served the interrogatory has three options. First, they may decide not to pursue the issue. Second, they may schedule a hearing to the objection. Or thirdly, they can file a motion to compel. While it is often desirable to bring the issue to the court’s attention by motion to compel, which provides a forum for explaining the import of the information sought, supporting case law, or other important information for the court to consider, counsel should be conscious that, under Rule 1.380(a)(4), the party who prevails at a hearing on a motion to compel may be awarded costs and fees.

Option to Specify Documents Rather than Answer Interrogatories

Rule 1.340(c) gives the answering party the option to respond to an interrogatory by specifying records from which the answer to the interrogatory can be derived, and giving the interrogating party a reasonable opportunity to examine and copy them. In order for this rule to be applicable, the answer to the interrogatory must be such that it “may be derived or ascertained from the records . . . and the burden of deriving or ascertaining the answer is substantially the same for the party serving the interrogatory as for the party to whom it is directed. . . .” Addressing the abusive practice of dumping truckloads of documents on an opposing party, only some of which are relevant and responsive, Rule 1.340(c) was amended in 1984 to state that “[a]n answer shall be in sufficient detail to permit the interrogating party to locate and to identify, as readily as can the party interrogated, the records from which the answer can be derived or ascertained, or shall identify a person or persons representing the interrogated party who will be available to assist the interrogating party in identifying and locating the documents at the time they are produced.”

The pitfall for plaintiffs caused by Rule 1.340(c) is that some savvy manufacturers have made a science out of using the rule to avoid discovery by overwhelming the plaintiff with a massive number of documents, only a few of which are responsive to the interrogatory. When plaintiffs complain to the court about the manufacturer’s improper response, the manufacturer uses the huge production of irrelevant documents to show how forthcoming they have been. They appear before the court with summaries of the man hours and cost of locating and copying all of these documents when, in fact, a simple one word answer would have been sufficient to respond to the interrogatory.

A number of major manufacturers have also created document repositories to which they can direct plaintiffs’ counsel in response to interrogatories, in order to take advantage of Rule 1.34(c). In many cases, however, the burden of ascertaining the answer is not “substantially the same for the party serving the interrogatory as for the party to whom it is directed” and plaintiffs should not immediately accept this method of response. Just as courts do not generally allow the expense and burden of copying documents to be shifted from the party requesting the information, they should not allow manufacturers to make litigation more burdensome for plaintiffs by directing them to a room full of documents when the answer to the interrogatory is readily available to the company with little or no burden. At least one federal court (under analogous Federal Rule 33(a)) has held that, even where a manufacturer has properly requested and received a protective order allowing it to refer the plaintiff to a repository, it is not relieved from providing specific responses to specific discovery requests.3 Plaintiffs’ counsel who have fought and lost the Rule 1.340(c) battle, should, at a minimum, request that the manufacturer provide an index of the documents and provide written certification that all documents responsive to the interrogatories are, indeed, contained in the mass of documents.

Format and Filing of Interrogatories

Rule 340(e) deals with “housekeeping” issues. It requires the interrogatories be prepared with sufficient space after each interrogatory for the answer. This rule further requires that interrogatories should be served on the party to whom they are directed with copies being sent to all other parties. Copies of interrogatories and answers should not be filed with the court unless they are “necessary to determine any matter before the court,” for example if they are the subject of a motion to compel. However, a copy of the certificate of service for the interrogatories, which in addition to the date and name of the person served, should state the number of interrogatories that were served.

Conclusion

Interrogatories are particularly susceptible to gamesmanship and other abusive discovery practices. Further, interrogatory responses are so analyzed and “sanitized” by counsel that they do not often yield useable information. Nevertheless, they are a cost effective discovery method and can be useful in getting basic information that can be explored in more depth in deposition.

[1] Calderbank v. Cazares, 435 So.2d 377 (Fla. 5th DCA 1983).
[2] Gleneagle Ship Management Company v. Loendakos, 602 So.2d 1282 (Fla. 1992).
[3] Federal Deposit Insurance Co. v. Blackburn, 109 F.R.D. 66 (E.D. Tenn. 1985).

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