Unlocking the Vault: Missouri Supreme Court Allows Discovery of Settlement Documents

by | April, 2023 | Legal News

Now that Hill is the law in Missouri, Plaintiffs will no longer be able to hide behind the work product doctrine as they sue multiple parties sequentially for the same injury.

Hill v. Wallach, No. SC 99650, 2023 WL 2586185, at *1 (Mo. Mar. 21, 2023)

In July of 2017, Plaintiff was in Mercy Rehab Hospital recovering from spinal surgery. Six months later, Plaintiff was in an automobile accident that allegedly aggravated her back and spine injuries. Shortly after the automobile accident, Plaintiff settled with the other driver’s insurance carrier. Plaintiff’s counsel negotiated with the adjuster and ultimately Plaintiff executed a release and received a sum of money in settlement. Then, two years later, Plaintiff sued Mercy alleging it was negligent for failing to repair a malfunctioning bed that caused her to sustain spine and back injuries. As the reader has likely noted by this point, Plaintiff has a causation issue.

Mercy sent a request for production seeking the release and emails between Plaintiff’s counsel and the adjuster, explaining they needed these documents to support their defense of reduction under RSMo. §537.060. Plaintiff objected to the production, raising the work product doctrine. The trial court ordered production, however, Plaintiff’s counsel filed a writ of prohibition and the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, prohibited discovery of these materials. Thereafter, Mercy sought and received transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that the settlement documents were not protected by the work product doctrine for among other reasons, the release and emails had been disclosed to third parties. Specifically, the Court held, “… the Hills ignore that they have waived work product protection by disclosing the documents to an adversary, i.e., the insurance claims adjuster in the motor vehicle accident case.”

The Hill case is extremely important in the defense of the insured. Up until now, Court routinely prohibits discovery of the release and written communications negotiating the settlement. At most, if the defense of reduction is pled, the defense is able to obtain the sum paid, but nothing more. Most importantly, on the facts of Hill, it doesn’t appear that Mercy would even be allowed a reduction if a verdict is returned against it since a reduction is only allowed under §537.060. when “…one of two or more persons liable in tort for the same injury or wrongful death…” Plaintiff in Hill would have been on firmer legal footing if they had argued the request did not seek relevant documents since this is not the type of fact pattern that allows for reduction. However, this type of evidence is always relevant and admissible to show a defendant did not cause the injury complained of by the Plaintiff.