Witness interviews can be one of the most valuable sources of information in civil litigation. Most people envision a “witness interview” as the clichéd scene of an investigator grilling a suspect in a tiny, dingy police room with a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. This image is ever-present in cop shows and typically involves some type of criminal activity, usually murder, arson or something equally disturbing and dramatic. And, admittedly, it’s good TV.
Far less riveting, but equally as valuable, are the interviews private investigators conduct with witnesses in civil cases. It’s not that the details are unimportant, but the review of P&L statements, sales projections, and employment contracts or digging around for background information on a witness can seem fairly dry to anyone not involved in the case.
Whether working on behalf of the plaintiffs or the defense, information provided by witnesses in civil cases can verbally corroborate what is discoverable, such as emails, financial statements, memorandums, and contracts, as well as reveal vital information not found on paper.
For example, in a securities fraud case, it is useful for the plaintiffs to know if the defendant CEO’s email inbox has in it damaging financial reports that were generated by the finance department. But, it is far more useful if three current or former employees reveal during their interviews that the CEO was seen reading these finance reports every day. The CEO can no longer claim that he or she did not read the damaging information about the company just because it was sitting in his email inbox. The plaintiffs know the reports were read because the witnesses confirmed it.
Why does the use of a investigator to assist with interviews in civil litigation makes good sense?
- Early in the process, investigators utilize numerous tools to identify potential witnesses, including proprietary databases and extensive networks of industry sources. Additionally, investigators can find contact information, such as an addresses or phone number, for a witness—even if they are hiding.
- Private investigators are careful to adhere to state laws when meeting witnesses in person—especially if they must doorstep (showing up at a potential witness’s home, place of work, or a scheduled event unannounced to see if the witness will speak with them). Done right, this is an effective strategy.
- Investigators also adhere to state laws when cold-calling witnesses or interviewing witnesses expecting their call. For example, there are strict laws regarding when a call can be recorded. These laws vary state-by-state.
- Investigators are careful with their interview notes and understand they are likely discoverable.
- Lastly, but probably most important, investigators know that a witness must be treated well. If the witness is unable to trust the investigator or feels taken advantage of, they are likely to disappear or flip—scenarios all investigators work hard to avoid.