Discovery of Expert Communications At Issue

 Here is one to watch for our readers who practice in Pennsylvania.  The state Supreme Court has before it the issue of discovery of communications between lawyers and their expert witnesses. See Carl Barrick v. Holy Spirit Hospital of the Sisters of Christian Charity, et al., No. 76 MAP 2012 (S.Ct. Pa.).

Barrick filed suit against Holy Spirit Hospital and Sodexho Management Inc. alleging personal injuries in the cafeteria of Holy Spirit Hospital.  An orthopedic surgeon who treated Barrick for injuries sustained from the accident was also named as an expert witness.  One of the defendants subpoenaed Barrick’s medical chart and other records, but the Doctor's medical center withheld some records which allegedly were trial preparation materials under Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.

The defendant filed a motion to compel, and after the trial court conducted an in camera review, the court ordered the release of the materials to the defendants.  This was in line with some state cases that suggested work product protections in Pennsylvania are not as strong as under the federal rules. The plaintiff appealed, and a panel of the Superior Court upheld the ruling in 2010. The issue was then reconsidered by the Superior Court sitting en banc, which ruled that the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure did not compel the disclosure of such communications between attorneys and their expert witnesses. Arguably this ruling offered more protection than the federal rules do.  It also made an interesting contrast with Rule 4003.5 which, upon cause shown, gives state courts some ability to compel experts to do more than the basic response to interrogatories regarding their anticipated testimony at trial.

The 8-1 majority reasoned that Pa.R.C.P. 4003.5 controls discovery regarding expert testimony, and it specifies that a party cannot directly serve discovery requests upon a non-party expert witness. Discovery regarding testimony of an expert other than through a defined set of interrogatories must be made upon the showing of good cause to the court, not through a subpoena. Here, the correspondence sought by the defendant did not fall into the area of interrogatory permitted under Rule 4003.5(a)(1).  

Following the en banc ruling, defendants appealed.  The issue before the supreme court now is whether the superior court’s holding “improperly provides absolute work-product protection to all communications between a party’s counsel and their trial expert.”

E-Discovery Relief?: Congress Passes Bill To Reduce Risk Of Inadvertant Disclosure Of Privileged Material

Congress has passed and sent to the President a bill that amends the Federal Rules of Evidence with respect to the disclosure of a communication or information covered by the attorney-client privilege or work product protection. The bills S. 2450/H.R. 6610 limit the effect of inadvertent disclosure of privileged materials. The Senate passed S.2450 in February, 2008, and the House passed the identical H.R. 6610 last week.

One unfortunate aspect of the new e-discovery rules has been a tremendous cost due to the need to review ESI, particularly emails, to make sure that privileged information is not given to the other side. Mass tort defendants, in particular, must often sift through a mountain of documents to ensure that privileged material is not inadvertently released. While most documents produced during discovery have little value, attorneys must still conduct exhaustive reviews to prevent disclosures of the needle in a haystack that reveals confidential information. The cost to litigants is staggering and the time consumed by courts to supervise these activities can get excessive.

The bill impacts this problem not by changing the law on the attorney-client privilege or the work product doctrine, but by modifying the consequences of an inadvertent disclosure once a privilege exists, through creation of new Federal Rule of Evidence 502. The federal rules committees studied this problem in connection with various proposals to change the discovery rules. The rules committee concluded that the need for exhaustive preproduction privilege reviews could be significantly reduced if the risks of waiver were clarified and limited, and thus recommended the bill’s changes.

The bill provides that, in new Rule 502(a), when a disclosure is made in a federal proceeding (or to a federal office or agency), and that disclosure waives the attorney-client privilege or work-product protection, the waiver extends to an undisclosed communication or information only if: (1) the waiver is intentional; (2) the disclosed and undisclosed communications or information concern the same subject matter; and (3) they ought in fairness to be considered together. When the disclosure is made in a federal proceeding (or to a federal office or agency), under new Rule 502(b), it does not operate as a waiver in a federal or state proceeding if: (1) the disclosure is inadvertent; (2) the holder of the privilege or protection took reasonable steps to prevent disclosure; and (3) the holder promptly took reasonable steps to rectify the error. 

Maybe a small step in the right direction.