Most lawsuits involve some kind of discovery. The discovery phase of a lawsuit involves the parties is using formal or informal methods of determining what the facts may be before a trial. It is very likely that anyone's ancestors were involved with the courts at some point in their life and it is also possible that a record of the court proceedings is still in existence. Even if your ancestor was not a direct participant in the lawsuit, they may have been a witness and given testimony in court or at a deposition. The witness or party may have also left some kind of affidavit or statement about the case. In some jurisdictions, court records may have made it online, but there may also be large numbers of records that are stored in court archives around the country, waiting to be examined.
Some of the common discovery documents that may exist include the following:
- Depositions -- Depositions are question and answer sessions where one of the attorneys asks a potential witness or party questions about the case. However, my experience in depositions is that attorneys may also ask a lot of background questions about the parties or witnesses including schooling and employment that have nothing to do with the lawsuit. The testimony of the witness is usually recorded in some form by a court reporter for later possible use at a trial. In present practice, few of the depositions taken find their way into the court files, but it doesn't hurt to look.
- Affidavit or Statement -- Even if there is no record of a deposition, it is possible that your ancestor made an affidavit (a statement made under oath) or some other statement about the case. It is my experience that often these documents contain a lot of extraneous information to the lawsuit, but may help fill in details about the ancestor not available in any other place. Affidavits and statements, unlike depositions, often make their way into the court files.
- Interrogatories -- These are a set of formal questions asked of witnesses or more frequently, the parties to the lawsuit. They are not usually as useful to a genealogist as a deposition, but they may contain valuable information especially if the lawsuit involved several family members or divorce or property law claims.
- Requests for Admission -- These documents may appear, but are probably less useful than the other types of discovery to a genealogist because they are very specific to the litigation's legal issues and factual disputes.