Tips for Combating Plaintiff’s Deposition Tricks #9: The False Horizon of Factual Manipulation

TRICK: Manipulate the Factual Premise of the Question to Create a False Horizon. TIP: Trust Your Instruments.

As we near the end of our 10-part exposé, by now it’s probably clear that, in a deposition, the main goal of the plaintiff’s attorney is to manipulate a desired outcome. Thus far, we have focused primarily on emotional and mental manipulation tactics because they are the easiest ways to trick smart, successful, intelligent people into giving unclear, unflattering, and unfavorable testimony in a short period of time.

To illustrate our tricks and tips, we have been on a journey through various perils of land and sea, such as hurricanes, riptides, and fog. This week, we’re taking to the sky to discuss our next trick: The False Horizon.
Remember, the attorney is there to get information from you–but not just any information. She needs the “right” information for her case. To do this, however, she needs the jury to see the world from her perspective.

THE DANGER OF FALSE HORIZONS

If you’ve ever flown a plane, or even ridden in one, you know that our land-based senses don’t always work the same in the air as they do on the ground. Specifically, our senses of balance and perspective are highly vulnerable to heights, speed, acceleration, and gravitational forces. As a result, sensory illusions are common among pilots.

When the real horizon is obscured by darkness or sloping cloud formations, the pilot may become disoriented and perceive a “false horizon.” When this happens, the pilot may be tempted to orient the plane at an unnatural and unsafe angle because his physical senses are no longer reliable. If the pilot fails to correct the angle and fly the plane toward the false horizon, the plane will start to descend and ultimately crash.

Commercial pilots undergo extensive training to handle the effects of sensory illusion. In fact, when it comes to the orientation of the plane, pilots learn to ignore their own feelings and rely exclusively on the plane’s instruments to avoid succumbing to the false horizon.

FALSE HORIZONS IN DEPOSITIONS

In the context of a deposition, the False Horizon is a form of intellectual manipulation that occurs when an attorney alters the underlying facts of a question in some manner. By changing, expanding, or limiting the factual premise of a question, the attorney has created a new reality–a False Horizon–in the jury’s perception. The goal is, then, that you will change the orientation of your “plane” (i.e., your answer) to the False Horizon she has created.

When using False Horizon techniques, the goal is to make it appear that you’ve been given a complete question when, in reality, it’s premise is partially incomplete or incorrect. After all, the jury doesn’t know any better, and will typically assume that the question being posed is fair, complete, and accurate.

False Horizon tactics are designed to create an expectation in the minds of the jury to hear one specific answer, which will appear to be the only logical answer, leaving no room for additional context or explanation. Plus, if the attorney has successfully established frame control through intimidation or other Low Road tactics, you may not feel like you have permission to correct the attorney or give an answer outside the scope of the question.

False Horizons can create a different reality than the true facts would yield. And just like a pilot, giving in to the illusion of the False Horizon could have disastrous consequences. To avoid these dangers, the pilot must learn to ignore his feelings and rely solely on the plane’s instruments to fly straight.

TRUST YOUR INSTRUMENTS

Before discussing specific techniques and examples, let’s take an inventory of the instruments that will alert you to the presence of a False Horizon. Since feelings and perception alone can lead you astray, your instruments are critical to ensuring that the plaintiff’s attorney is not permitted to create a False Horizon for you or the jury. So what are these “instruments” anyway?

1. The Facts. A solid factual foundation is your instrument that will quickly alert you to the presence of False Horizon techniques. As we’ve repeatedly discussed throughout this series, there is no substitute for knowing the facts as they apply to your role in the case. Facts may consist of sequences of events, historical data, knowledge of systems, and applicable laws and regulations that you abide by when doing your job. It cannot be overstated that a solid understanding of the facts is critical for maintaining confidence and avoiding the False Horizon throughout your deposition.

2. Your Tools. This disorientation created by the False Horizon can not only lead to unfavorable testimony, but can also elicit feelings of aggression, humiliation, and confusion. The tools you’ve learned in this series for identifying and mitigating the effects of these triggers will help you avoid any Low Road side effects that may arise.

3. Your Attorney. Your attorney is there to protect you. He or she should be constantly on the lookout for techniques that are purposefully meant to mislead you or the jury. In certain cases, your attorney may be able to offer a timely objection or otherwise thwart a False Horizon technique during the deposition. Other times, because defending attorneys are legally limited in what they can say during a deposition, they will have to take other procedural steps to limit unfavorable or misleading testimony after the fact. Now that we’ve identified your instruments, let’s talk about how to use them. Here are some DOs and DON’Ts for handling False Horizons:

DO answer simply whenever possible. Most of the time, a strong, confident “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know” will be the best answer to a question, or a straightforward factual response to a specific question. Adding unnecessary explanation or additional context can come across as defensive, wishy-washy, or suspicious to a jury. That being said, when dealing with a False Horizon, additional context may be needed. If so…

DO give pushback if necessary. Just because a question is setting you up for a yes/no answer doesn’t mean that’s all you can say. In the False Horizon examples below, the attorney wants you to answer “yes,” even though SHE knows that YOU know the question is bogus. Why? Because it can be edited and shown to the jury. Plus, she’s trying to draw out a weak response from you (“Yes, but…”). Instead, simply correct the misleading factual premise, then state a clear answer according to the true facts.
DON’T get angry or defensive. If we haven’t made it clear by now, getting angry or defensive in your deposition will reflect poorly on both you and your company. No matter how justified you may feel, use your Escape Route if you feel yourself getting frustrated. Remember, the jury are not just listening to answers, they are reading your personality to determine if you are honest and trustworthy. A calm, confident response will encourage the jury to like and believe you.

DO inform your attorney. Let your attorney know if you feel that a False Horizon technique has been used so the appropriate steps can be taken to limit or strike the testimony before a jury can ever hear it.

FALSE HORIZON TECHNIQUES

1. Misleading Facts. An attorney can create a False Horizon by phrasing a question that has a technically true answer, but presupposes conditions that are not true.
Example: In some situations, post-accident drug testing is required for commercial drivers. YOU know that this accident was NOT an accident that required drug testing. However, the attorney might phrase the question in a misleading way.
“So since you didn’t get tested for drugs or alcohol after this accident, we’ll never know whether you were intoxicated or impaired at the time of the accident.”
See how that works? Technically the statement is true–but the jury will be misled into believing a requirement existed (for drug testing) unless additional context is given.

Weak Response: “Well, yes that’s true, but I wasn’t required to get a drug test after an accident like this.” Weak Response: “Hey, that’s not a fair question! I didn’t have to get a drug test!”

Strong Response: “This was not an accident that required a drug test. I was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time.”

2. Black/White Options. A False Horizon can also be created by narrowing the scope of the question to lock you into a yes/no answer.
Example: Your company has a policy that requires a driver to be terminated if he has more than 2 preventable accidents within a 12-month period. Your driver had 4 accidents in 12 months, but only 1was deemed preventable and, further, he was satisfactorily retrained and reassessed following the preventable accident.
“Your company policy requires that a driver be terminated after 2 accidents, yet he is still continuing to drive for your company even after having 4 accidents within 12 months, correct?”
By phrasing the question in a way that ignores relevant details and exceptions, the attorney hopes to downplay the “gray area” and limit you to a black and white answer.

Weak Response: “Well, yes that’s true…but we complied with the company policy and he only had one accident that was deemed preventable, which is actually what the policy states, there have to be 2 preventable accidents, and even after that he was retrained in the area that accident pertained to, which is not related to this accident at all.”

Strong Response: “The company policy requires termination after 2 preventable accidents. The driver only had 1 preventable accident and was retrained prior to resuming his responsibilities.”

3. Improper Hypotheticals. Unless you’re an expert witness, it’s typically improper for an attorney to ask a hypothetical question to a fact witness. But that doesn’t mean the attorney won’t try. Hypothetical questions are powerful suggestive techniques because they depart from reality entirely–and the jury won’t know the difference.
Example: You were involved in an accident in the early afternoon. You had not stopped to eat lunch yet, and you had ample time to make your delivery. However, the attorney may set up a hypothetical question to suggest a different set of facts to the jury.
“So let’s suppose that you just left McDonalds having eaten a greasy lunch and jumped back in your tractor-trailer before your break was over so you could make your delivery on time. Wouldn’t you think you might start feeling sluggish and drowsy at that time of day?”
These are obviously not the facts of the case, but since the question is framed as a hypothetical, you might be tempted to answer the question hypothetically. If you do, you confirm the False Horizon.

Weak Response: “Well, yes, but that’s not how it happened…I hadn’t even eaten lunch yet, and…” Strong Response: “That’s not what happened before the accident.”

4. Analytical Gaps. A question with Analytical Gaps creates a False Horizon through subtle logical fallacies that are usually imperceptible to a jury.
Example: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations announce certain regulations and standards for drivers and motor carriers. While they are important guidelines, they are not laws, and do not provide one-size-fits-all guidance in every possible driving situation. Your driver was unable to comply with a specific regulation due to weather and roadway conditions on the day of the accident.
“The FMCSRs announce Safety Rules for drivers. Mr. Driver was not in compliance with Regulation XYZ on the date of the accident and therefore violated the Safety Rules, correct?”
This is akin to saying A + B = Z, skipping over numerous variables to reach a conclusion. Although the question may be true sometimes, the logical fallacy is that it is not true all the time.

Weak Response: “Well, technically yes, but there were some extenuating circumstances…”

Strong Response: “The FMCSRs do not announce Safety Rules for every driver, on every roadway, in every situation. Here, it was impossible for Mr. Driver to comply with Regulation XYZ due to weather and roadway conditions.”

In these examples, the strong responses prevent the attorney from misleading the jury in a way that also enhances your credibility and trustworthiness. By using your instruments and remaining calm, clear, and assertive, you can help realign the jury’s perspective from the False Horizon to the real one.
For more information about Murphy Legal or preparing for depositions, please call us at (979) 690-0800 or contact us.

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