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Hickman v. Taylor

Supreme Court of the United States

November 13, 1946, Argued ; January 13, 1947, Decided

No. 47


 [*497]   [**387]   [***455]  MR. JUSTICE MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents an important problem under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as to the extent to which a party may inquire into oral and written statements of witnesses, or other information, secured by an adverse party's counsel in the course of preparation for possible litigation after a claim has arisen. Examination into a person's files and records, including those resulting from the professional [****6]  activities of an attorney, must be judged with care. It is not without reason that various safeguards have been established to preclude unwarranted excursions into the privacy of a man's work. At the same time, public policy supports reasonable and necessary inquiries. Properly to balance these competing interests is a delicate and difficult task.

 [*498]  On February 7, 1943, the tug "J. M. Taylor" sank while engaged in helping to tow a car float of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad across the Delaware River at Philadelphia. The accident was apparently unusual in nature, the cause of it still being unknown. Five of the nine crew members were drowned. Three days later the tug owners and the underwriters employed a law firm, of which respondent Fortenbaugh is a member, to defend them against potential suits by representatives of the deceased crew members and to sue the railroad for damages to the tug.

A public hearing was held on March 4, 1943, before the United States Steamboat Inspectors, at which the four survivors were examined. This testimony was recorded and made available to all interested parties. Shortly thereafter, Fortenbaugh privately interviewed the survivors and [****7]  took statements from them with an eye toward the anticipated litigation; the survivors signed these statements on March 29. Fortenbaugh also interviewed other persons believed to have some information relating to the accident and in some cases he made memoranda of what they told him. At the time when Fortenbaugh secured the statements of the survivors, representatives of two of the deceased crew members had been in communication with him. Ultimately  [***456]  claims were presented by representatives of all five of the deceased; four of the claims, however, were settled without litigation. The fifth claimant, petitioner herein, brought suit in a federal court under the Jones Act on November 26, 1943, naming as defendants the two tug owners, individually and as partners, and the railroad.

One year later, petitioner filed 39 interrogatories directed to the tug owners. The 38th interrogatory read: "State whether any statements of the members of the crews of the Tugs 'J. M. Taylor' and 'Philadelphia' or of any other vessel were taken in connection with the towing of the car float and the sinking of the Tug 'John M. Taylor.'  [*499]  Attach hereto exact copies of all such statements [****8]  if in writing, and if oral, set forth in detail the exact provisions of any such oral statements or reports."

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329 U.S. 495 *; 67 S. Ct. 385 **; 91 L. Ed. 451 ***; 1947 U.S. LEXIS 2966 ****; 34 Ohio Op. 395


Subsequent History: Later proceeding at Hickman v. Taylor, 75 F. Supp. 528, 1947 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1798 (D. Pa., 1947)


A District Court adjudged respondents guilty of contempt for failure to produce, in response to interrogatories, copies of certain written statements and memoranda prepared by counsel in connection with pending litigation. 4 F.R.D. 479. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 153 F.2d 212. This Court granted certiorari. 328 U.S. 876. Affirmed, p. 514.

Hickman v. Taylor, 153 F.2d 212, 1945 U.S. App. LEXIS 4599 (3d Cir. Pa., 1945)

Disposition:  153 F.2d 212, affirmed.


discovery, interrogatories, tug, witnesses, written statement, preparation, privileged, documents, circumstances, answered, deposition, parties, district court, deposition-discovery, cases, oral statement, photographing, interviewed, copies, crew, mental impressions, railroad, exact, files, legal profession, court order, impeachment, inspection, survivors, contempt

Civil Procedure, Discovery, Methods of Discovery, Inspection & Production Requests, General Overview, Interrogatories, Depositions, Oral Depositions, Criminal Law & Procedure, Defenses, Written Depositions, Attorneys, Misconduct During Discovery, Motions to Compel, Discovery & Disclosure, Relevance of Discoverable Information, Privileged Communications, Evidence, Privileges, Attorney-Client Privilege, Scope, Work Product Doctrine, Judicial Officers, Judges, Discretionary Powers