Am I free yet?
August 3, 2010 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Subpoena me now / subpoena me later. If I have not yet gotten dragged into a civil suit that was filed more than a month ago, am I safe?

I found out today that a person for whom I did some contract work, years ago, is now involved in a high-profile civil suit.

(Please don't speculate in the comments re. which lawsuit this is -- no reason to draw unnecessary attention to myself, since I assume his people are following all web references to the case. Thank you.)

The work I did for him was on the project the case involves. I have no direct knowledge of the issues in question or the person he is suing, so I doubt I'd be useful either to him or to the other person, but I would like to have some idea of whether/when I can stop worrying about being subpoenaed. No one has contacted me about the case so far, and it's been more than a month since it was filed.

I want absolutely nothing to do with this man, in court or especially publicly. He is on record (to whatever extent emails and voice communications are record) with a number of threats including his intent to "permanently destroy [my] reputation" in retaliation if I simply took him to small claims court to get the money he never paid me for the work I did. I stopped caring about the money years ago; now I just want to forget this person (and I had, until I ran into the news of this lawsuit, which is getting significant media attention because of its subject).

I have a new baby and many responsibilities, and it really concerns me that I could be dragged into this case. I am basically asking if there's a way to know how much time needs to pass or specifically what needs to happen before I can be confident I won't be involved in this court case.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total)
The statute of limitations for many cases is 2 years. It depends on your jurisdiction and the nature of the case.

If you could get a copy of the petition from the court it was filed in, you might find out what you're dealing with.
posted by abdulf at 2:28 PM on August 3, 2010

The statute of limitations for many cases is 2 years.

That's the statute for filing a case. This case has been filed.

At some point, both parties will probably have to submit a witness list to the court. If you're not on it, then you're probably off the hook.
posted by amro at 2:37 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

And if they don't have to submit witness lists before the start of the trial, they will once it starts,
posted by amro at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2010

I think the case has already been filed, so the statute of limitations wouldn't be an issue.

A month after filing is a very short time in the life of a civil lawsuit, particularly a "high profile one." "High profile" is often synonymous with "lots of lawyers running around and billing and filing lots of motions and taking depositions." You're very early in the game, unfortunately.

For a big case, discovery (the part where you might get called on for a deposition) can take months, or even years. If it goes to trial (where you might be called on to testify in court), that could be years down the road.

Most cases settle, statistically, but usually not this early on. If the case settles and you haven't been called on, you're most likely safe. A few cases are dismissed for legal defects, and that would mean that you're probably safe then too. But it's still possible that it could come back in some other format as someone tries to sue a different way without the defects.

If you want to keep a low profile, you can probably monitor the case on the court's website and see if it's settled or dismissed. If you're sure they're going to call you and you just can't bear waiting and you want more information, you could call the attorney (who would be listed on the docket sheet for the case) and ask for more information. The attorney will likely not know at this point though.
posted by *s at 2:40 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

No. You're not out of the woods until the discovery deadlines have passed and you're not named as a potential witness. That could, depending on the nature of the suit, take many months or even years.

I highly recommend, if you are experiencing stress over the prospect of being questioned under oath about unpleasant things from your past, that you check out Chapters 5-8, 13, & 14 of this book. Those sections can help you to understand what to expect, how to act, and how to control and live with the totally understandable stress that you are going through.
posted by gauche at 2:46 PM on August 3, 2010

There's no statute of limitation to your being subpoenaed to testify / provide documents for a lawsuit. The amount of time that's passed since the filing of this suit is no guarantee that you won't be contacted (lawsuits can last a long time).

There are, however, other limitations on subpoenas, depending on your state's law. Generally, for example, there are limitations to the geographic scope of a subpoena. You will likely need to file a motion to quash or other motion if you are not going to comply with a subpoena. See a lawyer at this point.

You may also be contacted and asked to cooperate with one side or another in the absence of a subpoena. For example, a junior lawyer may call to interview you about your experience with the defendant. It's your choice whether you will cooperate in the absence of a subpoena.

With that said, I wouldn't worry too much about it, unless you have knowledge that directly pertains to the subject matter of the suit.
posted by seventyfour at 2:47 PM on August 3, 2010

Like *s and armo said, it's going to be a long, long time before you know for sure that you aren't going to be called. However, if you don't have any direct, specific knowledge, you probably won't be. Over the next few months the lawyers will be exchanging interrogatories and doing discovery. If you name comes up in the responses or the documents, they will won't to talk to you, but that will probably be over the phone. If and only if they think you have something important to say the next step will most likely be a disposition. An afternoon in a windowless room with two to six lawyers and a court reporter. (the guy you used to work for won't be there; don't expect snacks.)

Several months after all that, one side or the other might won't to call you into court, but not until they are sure of exactly what you are going to say.
posted by Some1 at 2:51 PM on August 3, 2010

Also, don't call the attorney. You'll just put yourself on his/her radar. If I'm the attorney on the case, I sure as heck want to talk to someone who knows enough about my litigation to seek me out. You want to avoid involvement? Lie low/hide behind the log/keep quiet.
posted by seventyfour at 2:51 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Put it out of your mind for now. Even in my jurisdiction, where we aim to move civil cases along to trial by set deadlines, trial dates tend to occur a year to a year and a half from filing. Also, the vast majority of civil cases everywhere settle.

When you get a subpoena or a phone call, if that day ever comes, you won't be dealing directly with this person, but with an attorney. Your only obligation to be cooperative is that you have to respond to a subpoena.

So, let it go for now. This may never be an issue for you, and if it arises again, you'll just be dealing with lawyers or a lawyer. (Also, threats or other negative behavior toward a witness in a lawsuit is pretty serious misconduct, FYI. Very unlikely you'll see it, and if you do you should notify counsel right away.)
posted by bearwife at 3:19 PM on August 3, 2010

As others have said, you're nowhere near clear of this, time-wise. Months or even years are a distinct possibility.

However, I also wanted to add that you may want to think hard before you try to actively avoid being contacted on this. If you have probative evidence that could contribute to the case, for either party, do you really want to hide it under a bushel? Just as many people feel it's their civic duty to sit on a jury despite its inconvenience, the same argument could be made for providing any relevant information or documents you may have.

Just a thought.
posted by Pomo at 6:45 PM on August 3, 2010

If someone from the case does contact you, you should seriously consider hiring your own lawyer to deal with the process. Litigators often put pressure on third party witnesses (that's you) to testify and/or cooperate when, in fact, the witness has no obligation to do so because of jurisdictional or other technical issues with the service of the subpoena. Even if you do have to cooperate, a lawyer can negotiate the scope of your participation (i.e., limit your role). Also - if nothing else - if you hire a lawyer, no lawyer is allowed to talk to you directly, but is required to speak only with your lawyer. A lawyer will cost you a small amount of money, but it sounds like it might be worth it in your case. You can hold off until/unless someone actually calls you from the case.
posted by Mid at 7:24 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also - do not reach out and contact any lawyer on the case unless/until they contact you first. The surest way to become involved in the case is to call the lawyers on the file.
posted by Mid at 7:42 PM on August 3, 2010

I was the plaintiff in a civil case (legal malpractice). Lawyers on both sides were still calling people in for depositions 8+ months after the initial filing; testimony from earlier deponents ended up leading to the calling of additional deponents, and so on, and so on...

If you want to attempt to stay un-involved, keep a low profile and do not initiate contact of your own accord with any of the parties involved, including defendants, plaintiffs, any witnesses and of course counsel for either side.

However, if you have knowledge or testimony that would help either side in the case, and someone else who is deposed discloses that, then you can expect to be subpoenaed eventually.
posted by de void at 10:56 AM on August 4, 2010

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