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The Creek Fire ignited on December 5, 2017 in Los Angeles County, and damaged multiple properties before being extinguished. On December 11 and 12, 2017, counsel for several of the plaintiffs insurance companies sent evidence preservation letters to Southern California Edison asserting that they believed SCE’s equipment likely contributed to the ignition and spread of the fire.

Plaintiffs 21st Century Insurance Company, filed their initial subrogation complaint against SCE on May 14, 2021. A master subrogation complaint filed on April 18, 2022, which plaintiffs joined, alleged that an electrical arc on SCE’s Lopez Circuit “ignite[d] nearby trees, brush, and vegetation giving rise to the Creek Fire.”

During discovery in the subrogation case, SCE withheld certain documents that it asserted were generated during an attorney initiated and directed internal investigation into the cause of the Creek Fire.

Plaintiffs moved to compel, arguing the attorney-client privilege and attorney work product doctrine did not exempt these documents from production. Among other things, plaintiffs argued that SCE could not assert privilege and withhold documents because the primary reason SCE conducted the investigation was to comply with state law requiring it to publicly report any involvement it had in causing the fire.

The trial court agreed the dominant purpose of the investigation was to comply with public reporting requirements, and held the documents thus were not privileged, and compelled production. SCE petitioned the Court of Appeal for a preemptory writ against the order compelling production of these documents.  

In the published case of Southern California Edison v Superior Court –B333798.PDF (May 2024), the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court’s order improperly invaded the protection afforded by the attorney work product doctrine. A preemptory writ of mandate issue directing the trial court to vacate the November 17, 2023 order directing SCE to produce records in Los Angeles Superior Court case.

California law shields the “work product” of an attorney from disclosure in litigation. The legislative policy for affording this protection is to “[p]reserve the rights of attorneys to prepare cases for trial with that degree of privacy necessary to encourage them to prepare their cases thoroughly and to investigate not only the favorable but the unfavorable aspects of those cases” (Code Civ. Proc., § 2018.020, subd. (a)) and “[p]revent attorneys from taking undue advantage of their adversary’s industry and efforts” (id., subd. (b)).

To that end, subdivision (a) of section 2018.030 describes what is known as “absolute” work product protection, while subdivision (b) describes “qualified” protection.

“A writing that reflects an attorney’s impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal research or theories is not discoverable under any circumstances.” (Id., subd. (a).) Any attorney work product that does not reflect counsel’s impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal research or theories “is not discoverable unless the court determines that denial of discovery will unfairly prejudice the party seeking discovery in preparing that party’s claim or defense or will result in an injustice.” (Id., subd. (b).)

“[T]he Legislature in enacting section 2018.030 did not define ‘work product’ and instead left the term open to judicial interpretation.” (Coito v. Superior Court (2012) 54 Cal.4th 480, 494 (Coito).) Courts have defined attorney work product as “the product of the attorney’s effort, research, and thought in the preparation of his client’s case. It includes the results of his own work, and the work of those employed by him or for him by his client, in investigating both the favorable and unfavorable aspects of the case, the information thus assembled, and the legal theories and plan of strategy developed by the attorney-all as reflected in interviews, statements, memoranda, correspondence, briefs, and any other writings reflecting the attorney’s ‘impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal research or theories’ and in countless other tangible and intangible ways.

“The documents at issue, which SCE provided substantial evidence were prepared as part of an attorney led internal investigation, are the type of materials typically entitled to work product protection. Our Supreme Court’s decision in Coito is instructive.”