Statements made in a press release, if based on attorney work product information, may waive work product as to the subject matter of the statements. In E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company v. Kolon Industries, Inc. (E.D. Va. July 30, 2010), click here, the court found that the plaintiff, E.I DuPont de Nemours and Company ("DuPont") waived information that was otherwise non-discoverable work product because DuPont relied upon that information to support a statement in its press release.
The case involves allegations by DuPont that the defendant Kolon Industries, Inc. ("Kolon") misappropriated DuPont’s secret processes and technologies for manufacturing Kevlar. In addition to the civil litigation filed by DuPont, the F.B.I. had previously conducted a criminal investigation of a Kolon employee. During that criminal investigation, DuPont's general counsel office had worked closely with government officials. In a previous opinion, the Court held that work product was not waived by Dupont's sharing of documents with law enforcement agencies that were investigating the alleged misconduct. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company v. Kolon Industries, Inc., (E.D. Va. Apr. 13, 2010).
However, DuPont's issuance of the press release was another story. The controversial statement read: "FBI investigation has revealed that, in August 2008, three Kolon managers flew to Richmond, the location of our global Kevlar technology and business headquarters, expressly for the purpose of obtaining confidential DuPont process technology." DuPont was distributing the press release to DuPont’s customers, presumably in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Press releases are, of course, a common tactic used by companies to protect and bolster public opinion and brand name.
Kolon sought discovery of work product information, contending that DuPont had waived its work product relating to the subject matter of the statement because the information relating to manager’s intent could have only be based on protected information. DuPont responded that the press release was based solely on publicly available information.
The court found that the press release statement relied on more than just public information. The court based its finding, in part, on its conclusion that the in-house counsel who drafted the statement had reviewed multiple rources of information relating to the meeting, and in drafting the statement in question, he could not possibly have "segregated the various categories of [publicly available and protected] information." Therefore, the press release was not based solely on public information. Rather, the statement about Kolon's purpose in attending the meeting was most likely based at least partly on privileged information that the in-house counsel had been exposed to throughout the course of his work with the government investigation.
The court also addressed the scope of the waived subject matter. Kolon sought production of "all communications in DuPont's possession relating to the Government's investigation of [Kolon's employee] and Kolon." The Court, however, more narrowly defined the scope of the waived subject matter to be those documents that "provide the factual basis for the statement in the press release that, in arranging for and attending . . . the meeting, Kolon had the purpose stated in the press release."
The Court also limited the waiver to fact work product and refused Kolon's request for opinion work product to be produced, finding that opinion work product is only discoverable in extreme circumstances. And the court found that an issuance of a press release is a common, not an extraordinary, circumstance in business.
This case serves as another warning to companies in litigation to carefully monitor the process of drafting press releases and what statements to include in them because press releases can lead to sanctions, waiver of work product and privileged information, and increase litigation costs. At the same time, companies in litigation often feel compelled to try to shape the public's perception of the litigation and the companies themselves. This is particularly true in cases involving unfair business practices or competition when the survival of a company's business model can be at stake. But, in doing so, they need to carefully weigh the risks of what they are saying publicly.