A recent opinion out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania illustrates the ongoing and vexing problem of determining whether documents created during an insurer’s early claims investigation are protected from disclosure in subsequent litigation under an attorney-client or work-product privilege.
In Henriquez-Disla v. Allstate Prop. and Cas. Ins. Co., 2014 WL 2217808 (E.D.Pa. May 29, 2014), a homeowner filed an insurance claim following an alleged theft at the home. The insurer conducted a preliminary coverage and subrogation investigation and ultimately retained counsel within one month of the loss. Counsel later conducted an examination under oath of the insured. The claim was ultimately denied when the insurer determined that the claim was fraudulent.
In the ensuing “bad faith” lawsuit brought by the insured against the insurer, the insured sought production of claims log entries, emails and other documents that included communications with counsel before suit was filed as well as materials relating to the insurer’s subrogation investigation including a cause and origin report (interestingly, the court described the cause and origin report as having been commissioned as part of the subrogation investigation and not as part of the coverage review). The insurer resisted producing these materials and the homeowner brought a motion to compel discovery.
The court ordered production of the early communications with counsel that collected factual information only, and did not contain legal advice, finding that the “collection of information for the EUO’s, are part of the ordinary business function of claims investigation and therefore fall outside the attorney-client privilege.” With respect to the insurer’s materials relating to subrogation, including the cause and origin report, the court likewise ordered that these be produced, finding that such information was part of the “ordinary business functions in claims investigation” and was not protected by a work-product privilege.
This case demonstrates that while early retention of counsel is an important factor considered by the courts in determining the applicability of attorney-client and work-product privileges, it is not the only factor, and that if ordinary claims functions are assigned to counsel, the factual information collected by counsel may ultimately be discoverable. Similarly, subrogation materials collected in the ordinary course of claims investigation, and not in anticipation of litigation, are likewise at risk of being discoverable.