An attorney for a tugboat’s owners and underwriters interviewed survivors and other persons in anticipation of litigation after a tugboat sank, leading to the deaths of five crew members. In discovery in a lawsuit that was subsequently brought, the Plaintiff requested copies or exact provisions of any statements, or or written, of members of the crew that had been taken. Defendants objected to the discovery, the district court held that the discovery was not protected from discovery, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should not be interpreted to require discovery of all the files and mental processes of lawyers by their adversaries.
A tugboat that was helping to tow a railroad car float sank, resulting in the death of five crew members. The tugboat’s owners and underwriters employed a law firm to defend them against future potential lawsuits arising out of the accident. One of the firm’s lawyers interviewed survivors and other persons and took statements from them in anticipation of litigation. The representative for one of the deceased crew members sued the tugboat owners and the railroad (the other crew members representatives had settled their claims). In discovery, the Plaintiff propounded an interrogatory seeking copies or exact provisions of any statements, or or written, of members of the crew that had been taken. Defendants, through their lawyer, objected to the discovery. The district court ordered defendants to respond to the inquiry, and held them in contempt and ordered them imprisoned until they complied. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Was production of the requested discovery (of the attorney’s files and mental processes) required?
No. The requested discovery was not justified under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Justice Jackson, agreeing with the affirmance of the Court of Appeals’ decision, noted the demoralizing effects that allowing the requested discovery would have on attorneys, requiring them to act as witnesses, and the conflicts that would arise if attorneys were required to reproduce exact accounts of witness statements.
The Court reviewed the scope of discovery under Federal Rule Civil Procedure 26, and concluded that the Rule (as adopted and as they existed at the time of this decision) did not believe or contemplate that all the files and mental processes of lawyers were open to the scrutiny of their adversaries.