Solo & Small Firm

Should You Object to Compound Questions?

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Reprinted with permission from CEB.

A question to a witness is objectionable on the ground that it’s compound if it joins two or more questions with the disjunctive “or” or the conjunctive “and.” But it may not always make sense to object. Here’s a look at the dangers of compound questions and how to handle them.

The statutory authority for the “compound” objection is in Evidence Code section 765, which allows the trial judge wide discretion in controlling the examination of witnesses.

The dangers presented by compound questions are mostly about potential confusion. A compound question may be a problem because:

  • It leads to inaccurate testimony if the witness is confused by the multiple facets of the question.
  • The resulting testimony is confusing because it’s unclear which part of the question the witness is answering.
  • Part of the question may call for inadmissible evidence.
  • An appellate court may construe the answer to support the judgment when the answer, if understood as intended by the witness, would have had the opposite effect.

For example, if the witness answers “yes” to the following compound questions, it will be unclear whether the witness’s reply refers to one or all of the questions:

Does ABC Co. or did ABC Co., at the time of this accident, produce items that your company would be likely to purchase?

Officer, when you arrived at the scene of the accident, did you or to your knowledge did any of your fellow officers take any steps to determine the point of impact?

If you believe that the danger of confusion is likely, make the objection. But if it appears that the answer to a compound question won’t be harmful, hold back from objecting. Technically, most questions of any length are compound, and this doesn’t necessarily make them harmful.

And remember that if you get an answer that’s nonresponsive, you can move to strike it (Evid. Code, § 766), and if it’s ambiguous, it can be clarified on cross-examination; always consider using alternatives to objecting.

Compound questions are just one of many objections discussed in detail in CEB’s California Trial Objections, an excellent resource as you prepare for trial.

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