Objections are used in depositions, hearings, and trials when one party believes that the opposing party is violating the rules of evidence or procedure in some way, usually by trying to admit a piece of evidence in court without adhering to the rules.
An objection must be based on some law or court rule, and the party that makes the objection must be able to state what law or rule he believes the objected-to material violates. Although a vast range of objections are possible, some are more common in court than others. The most common objections in personal injury and other civil law trials include:
Relevance. In order to be admissible in court, evidence must be relevant, or relate in some way to the issues being argued about at trial. A related objection is non-responsive answer, which means that the witness is not answering the party’s or attorney‘s question.
For instance, suppose that in a personal injury case, an attorney asks a witness during cross-examination, “You arrived at the theatre about 6 p.m., didn’t you?” If the witness says “Yes,” the answer is both relevant (assuming the question is relevant) and responsive. If the witness answers “No, because I was selling drugs at the time,” the answer is responsive but not relevant to the personal injury case. If the witness answers, “The traffic is awful at 6 p.m., especially down by the waterfront,” the answer may be relevant, but it is not responsive.
A closely-related objection to “relevance” is the objection that a piece of evidence is inflammatory or prejudicial. Even if the information is technically relevant, some pieces of information are so “hot” that they are more likely to upset or prejudice the jury than they are to give useful information. If a piece of evidence is likely to cause more harm than good, it is likely to be objected to on these grounds.
Calls for speculation, a legal conclusion, or an impermissible opinion. As a rule, witnesses are expected to answer questions as truthfully as possible and to stick to the facts. A question that asks the witness to guess what happened or to opine whether or not what happened meets a certain legal definition (such as “negligence”) may be objected to because it doesn’t stick to facts the witness observed. Expert witnesses, however, are generally allowed to offer opinions based on their expertise.
A related objection is an objection to a narrative response, which is a response in which the witness is allowed to ramble instead of sticking to answering the question. Some questions, like “Then what happened?” may elicit longer answers than others, like “you live at 123 Main Street, don’t you?”, but the witness should still stick to statements that describe facts the witness personally observed and that answer the question.
Hearsay. One of the best-known objections, “hearsay” points out that a piece of evidence is a statement made out of court by someone whom the court cannot cross-examine. Depending on how they’re counted, there are anywhere from nine to twenty-five or more hearsay exceptions, however, so a party or attorney who receives an objection based on hearsay needs to be able to name the correct exception, or explain why the evidence is not hearsay, very quickly.
Leading question. Leading questions are questions that suggest their own answers and are usually asked in a “yes or no” format that prompts the person being questioned to go along with the questioner. Questions like “you were at the mall last Sunday, weren’t you?” and “your middle name is Marie, isn’t that right?” are leading questions.
Leading questions are permitted during cross-examination but not during direct examination, unless the witness is “hostile” or unwilling to cooperate with the attorney or party questioning her. A leading question asked outside these circumstances may be objected to, and the person asking the question may be expected to re-phrase the question so that it is not leading. (Questions like “Where were you last Sunday?” and “What is your middle name?” are not leading.)
Privilege. “Privileged” information generally can be kept out of court, even if it is relevant. The most common privileges are the spousal privilege, covering information shared between married partners; the doctor-patient privilege, covering information shared during medical treatment; the attorney-client privilege, covering information shared or discovered between an attorney and the person she represents; and the priest-penitent privilege, covering information shared during confession or pastoral counseling.
A party or attorney who asks a question and hears it objected to as privileged should be prepared to explain why the information is not privileged. For instance, if the speaker shared the information with a non-privileged party like a co-worker, the privilege is lost, even if the speaker also shared that information with his spouse, doctor, attorney, or physician.
Lack of foundation. The objection “lack of foundation” most often applies to exhibits or pieces of evidence other than testimony that are brought into court without an explanation of where they came from or what they represent. Foundation is usually laid by having a witness testify as to what the object is.