Vulnerability is not the same as guilt. I need to emphasize that up front.
Today, New York’s highest state court ruled that Summer Zervos may proceed with her lawsuit against Donald Trump. Zervos claims that Trump sexually assaulted her a number of years ago. He responded by calling her a liar. She filed suit against him for defamation. The litigation was placed on hold, due to Trump’s claim of presidential immunity. In essence, the court today said that since Trump is no longer president, the immunity arguments have disappeared.
Now that the case can continue, Zervos will be entitled to take Trump’s deposition. Why is that so immportant?
Depositions are a formal pre-trial process where an individual answers questions under oath. In a criminal case, a defendant has little to fear by being deposed. The defendant has the right to refuse to answer questions (5th Amendment right to not incriminate yourself). The fact that the defendant has refused to answer questions may not be introduced into evidence at the later trial.
In civil cases (where money damages are the usual goal), you have no 5th amendment rights. There are only three ways to answer a question, and all of these answers may create later problems.
First, you can answer the question. This answer had better be truthful. If is later shown to be a lie, you can be later charged separately for lying under oath (perjury). Even if you are not charged with perjury, the jury can use the lie to help them decide your credibility.
Second, you can refuse to answer the question. That refusal can be entered into evidence at trial, affecting your credibility to the jury. Separately, the other side may go to the judge after the deposition is over and have the judge require you to answer the question.
Third, you can say you do not know the answer or don’t remember. Again, your lack of knowledge or memory may be considered by the jury to determine your credibility.
This is not where deposition problems end. One of the issues that plaintiffs have is that some of the information they need to prove their case may be only known to or available to the defendant.
Answers to deposition questions often reveal the names of other people with knowledge of the circumstances. They may become witnesses later. Perhaps more importantly, depositions may reveal the existence of documents that may be relevant to the case. The plaintiff may follow the deposition by requesting that these documents be produced.
Defendants such as Trump are extremely guarded about written information that they think will make them vulnerable or the names of people with individual knowledge of what happened. The deposition process has the potential to open the door to that evidence.
If there were only one case pending or threatened against Trump, the opened door might not be a big deal. However, once the evidence comes to light, other cases may find a way to make use of it as well. And that is where the true vulnerability lies.