Hickman v. Taylor - Case Summary

University / Undergraduate
Modified: 22nd Feb 2024
Wordcount: 642 words


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Legal Case Summary

Summary: A landmark case that established the federal common law protecting work-product doctrine in litigation.


The case revolves around a tugboat that overturned in the Delaware River, resulting in the death of five out of nine crew members. Subsequently, multiple investigations were conducted to determine the cause of the accident, including one by the tugboat company’s lawyer.

The lawyer interviewed the survivors and other persons related to the case and documented their detailed statements. When the personal representatives of the deceased crew members initiated a lawsuit against the tugboat company and its lawyer for negligence, they also sought production of the lawyer’s documents. The lawyer refused, asserting that the documents were protected under the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine.


The primary issue in Hickman v. Taylor case was whether the attorney’s work, which includes but is not limited to interviews, analysis of facts etc., during preparation for anticipated litigation, should be protected against discovery or not under any legal doctrine, and if so, under what exact conditions. Related to this was whether the protection could be pierced by showing necessity and justification.


The Hickman v. Taylor case significantly impacted the American legal system by acknowledging and defining the work-product doctrine, which protects an attorney’s preparatory work from discovery. The court also clarified that this protection is different from attorney-client privilege – the former provides broader yet conditional protection, while the latter is absolute and narrow. However, the question regarding exact conditions for piercing the protection remains an area of legal ambiguity and the subject of ongoing scholarship (Imwinkelried, 2002).


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the attorney. It held that discovery was inappropriate in this case as the material sought formed the lawyer's work-product and was thus protected from discovery under the work-product doctrine. The Court distinguished this doctrine from attorney-client privilege and held that the protection could be waived only upon showing a substantial need for the material in the preparation of the case and inability to obtain the substantial equivalent without undue hardship.


  • Imwinkelried, E. J. (2002). The new Wigmore: Evidentiary privileges. New York: Aspen Law & Business.

Journalist Brief

The Hickman v. Taylor case was instrumental in establishing a significant legal principle in the US - the work-product doctrine. This protection safeguards a lawyer's research and groundwork prepared in anticipation of litigation from being disclosed. The court also highlighted that the work-product doctrine is different from the attorney-client privilege; discovery protection can be waived in 'need and justification' scenarios, unlike the latter. The implications of this ruling continue to affect legal procedures relating to evidence collection and privilege disputes.


What is the significance of Hickman v. Taylor case?

Answer: The case established the work-product doctrine, a significant principle in the US legal system protecting an attorney's work prepared in anticipation of litigation from discovery.

What is the difference between work-product doctrine and attorney-client privilege?

Answer: Attorney-client privilege involves absolute confidentiality of communications between a lawyer and their client. The work-product doctrine radiates a broader protective umbrella over material prepared in anticipation of litigation, though its protection isn't absolute and can be waived by showing necessity and inability to obtain the material otherwise.

Who won in the Hickman v. Taylor case?

Answer: The judgment was in favor of the attorney, reaffirming that his preparatory work was protected under the work-product doctrine.

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