After a wrongful death lawsuit is filed and the defendant is properly served, both sides participate in a process of exchanging information about the case. This process is known as discovery.
There are many different ways to request or obtain information from the other side in a case. In Washington state, the rules governing the discovery process are quite broad and allow each side to investigate what evidence and witnesses may be introduced at trial. Even if the requested information does not appear directly relevant to the case, it may still be a proper request if it may lead to the discovery of relevant information.
Discovery may involve sending or answering written questions, termed "interrogatories." Local court rules may limit the number of written questions or requests that can be exchanged. Discovery can also include requests for production of documents and other relevant materials to the claims being made in the suit. When the interrogatories and requests for production are answered and completed, the Personal Representative or beneficiary must also execute a document stating that the answers and responses are true and accurate.
Discovery can include depositions. A deposition is a face-to-face meeting where the attorneys are allowed to ask witnesses questions under oath while a court reporter transcribes the session. Any witness who may offer testimony at trial can be deposed, including the Personal Representative, a beneficiary (surviving family member), the deceased’s doctor, the medical examiner or coroner, other family members, eyewitnesses, and experts involved in the case.
The deposition is a very important legal proceeding and should almost always involve preparation by the wrongful death attorney and the person who is going to be deposed, particularly if that person is the Personal Representative or a close family member who is initiating a claim for damages in the case. The person’s performance at the deposition can have a huge influence on the success or value of the wrongful death case. These individuals are very important in communicating and establishing the extent of the losses caused by the wrongful death.
In addition to interrogatories, requests for production, and depositions, each side’s lawyer may also be permitted to issue subpoenas. These allow attorneys to collect of documents or items in another party’s control. For instance, the wrongful death attorney may wish to subpoena the medical examiner’s records for the purpose of establishing the cause of death. Other documents, like financial, employment, and medical records may be requested by subpoena to help establish various elements or issues involved in the case.
The discovery phase may also include a request by the other side that the plaintiff or a beneficiary must submit to a medical examination and/or a psychological evaluation. Washington’s discovery rules permit one party to request such an exam or evaluation for the purpose of learning more about the person’s health and/or to evaluate the person’s claim for damages. For example, if a surviving parent claims to experience substantial psychological stress or grief following the death of a child, then the defendant’s psychological expert may be permitted to conduct an evaluation to verify or refute these claims.
The legal and factual grounds necessary to support a request to conduct a medical examination or psychological evaluation on a surviving family member will depend on the facts of the case and the issues involved. In most cases, the judge will have considerable discretion to grant or deny the defendant’s request for a medical or psychological evaluation on a case-by-case basis.