In May of 1973, America was fixated on the Senate Watergate hearings. I will forever remember Senator Howard Baker’s frequent question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Allegedly, he was given the question by none other than Fred Thompson, the future actor, Senator, and Presidential candidate.
This question has great applicability to personal injury cases, especially those involving accidents on the premises of a defendant. If a dangerous condition exists, you want your lawyer to probe how long it existed, whether the defendant had actual knowledge of its existence, and at what point the defendant acquired that knowledge. There is an element in a personal injury case that permits liability if the defendant did not have actual knowledge but should have had knowledge of a dangerous condition. This is known as constructive knowledge and can create liability even if there is not actual knowledge. The point of the Howard Baker question is, at what point did the defendant learn of the dangerous condition or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have learned of the existence of a dangerous condition. As a result, your lawyer could do worse than ask, “What did the defendant know and when did he know it?” There are some technical observers who might be disturbed that that is a compound question. If so, it can easily be broken into two parts without sacrificing its use.
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