Illinois Pitfalls In Preserving Dying Party’s Testimony

A recent case from the Fifth District of Illinois' intermediate appellate court illustrates how very different the Illinois state rules are from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure concerning deposition discovery. Berry v. American Standard, Inc., 382 Ill. App. 3d 895, 888 N.E.2d 740 (Ill. App. (5th Dist.) May 19, 2008), also discusses an important pitfall when attempting to preserve the testimony of a dying party.

In Berry, plaintiff sued multiple defendants for asbestos-related injuries after learning that he had contracted terminal mesothelioma and had a life expectancy of less than 18 months. Plaintiff quickly served defendants with a notice that his deposition would take place on February 25, 2004. The notice stated that the deposition would be an "evidence deposition."

Under Illinois procedure, a deposition may either be a "discovery deposition" or an "evidence deposition." Except under limited circumstances, the only deposition that may be used in court in lieu of in-person testimony is an evidence deposition. The court in Berry explained the distinction as follows (citations omitted):

Illinois has long recognized a sharp distinction between depositions taken for the purpose of discovery and those taken for use as evidence at a trial. The purpose of a discovery deposition is to explore the facts of the case, and for this reason wide latitude is given in the scope and manner of questioning. Discovery depositions are used to obtain information, to commit witnesses to particular stories, and to obtain admissions from opposing parties. Their admissibility in evidence is limited. Knowing in advance that a deposition is for discovery only and hence of limited availability, counsel ordinarily do not urge technical objections, and the taking of the deposition proceeds informally and expeditiously. Discovery depositions are not permitted to be used at a trial even if the deponent is unavailable, because that use would inhibit free discovery by requiring time-consuming evidentiary objections at every discovery deposition. In contrast, an evidence deposition is generally used for the purpose of preserving testimony for trial, and questioning is therefore limited by the rules of evidence.

Plaintiff knew that it was important to preserve his testimony through an evidence deposition, not merely a discovery deposition, because he was not going to live long enough to testify in person. That is why he noticed his own evidence deposition.

Because an evidence deposition serves as the equivalent of trial testimony, opposing parties typically first take a discovery deposition of the witness – no one wants to examine a witness for the first time at trial, after all. The Berry defendants exercised their right to object to being forced to take an evidence deposition without the benefit of a prior discovery deposition. Ultimately, the trial court agreed and plaintiff's deposition proceeded as a discovery deposition instead, with the parties agreeing to take the evidence deposition once the discovery deposition was completed.

Unfortunately, the discovery deposition became a long, drawn-out affair due to the large number of defendants seeking to examine plaintiff and extensive related motion practice. Plaintiff passed away before his evidence deposition could be taken, and plaintiff's wife was substituted as executrix.

Defendants subsequently moved to bar plaintiff from using any of the discovery deposition as testimony at trial, citing Illinois Supreme Court Rule 212(a)(5). The trial court agreed and the appellate court affirmed. When it comes to using discovery depositions as evidence, the Illinois rules are even more strict if the testimony at issue is of a party. The few situations listed in Rule 212(a)(5) permitting discovery depositions to be used at trial do not apply if the witness is a party or a controlled expert witness:

(a) *** Discovery depositions taken under the provisions of this rule may be used only: *** (5) upon reasonable notice to all parties, as evidence at trial or hearing against a party who appeared at the deposition or was given proper notice thereof, if the court finds that the deponent is neither a controlled expert witness nor a party, the deponent's evidence deposition has not been taken, and the deponent is unable to attend or testify because of death or infirmity, and if the court, based on its sound discretion, further finds such evidence at trial or hearing will do substantial justice between or among the parties.

Plaintiff advanced numerous arguments why his discovery deposition should be permitted at trial, but the court refused to bend the rules. Most significant was the argument that because of his death he was no longer a "party" for purposes of the rule, which was a matter of first impression in Illinois. The court rejected that argument, holding that his wife's substitution kept him in the case as a party for all purposes. (After all, if that were not true the case would have to be dismissed for lack of a plaintiff.)

This harsh result stands in sharp contrast to federal civil procedure. First of all, there is no distinction between "discovery" and "evidence" depositions. Second, the rules are more relaxed when it comes to using a deposition as trial testimony. If this case had been brought in federal court, Mr. Berry could have testified by deposition under Fed. R. Civ. P. 32(a)(4): "A party may use for any purpose the deposition of a witness, whether or not a party, if the court finds: (A) that the witness is dead." It's that simple.

So what should you do when you need to preserve a dying party's testimony for use at trial in Illinois? It is critical that you take that party's evidence deposition; the courts will accept no substitutes. If time is short, make your notice of deposition a notice of both a discovery and an evidence deposition. In some of the cases that the Fifth District distinguished, the deposition had been noticed that way, and the courts allowed use of the transcript where the other side had not objected at the deposition to its being an evidence deposition. If the other side does object, try to conduct any motion practice as expeditiously as possible, perhaps on an emergency basis.