The attorney-client privilege is a fragile protection, and easily waived. Most courts find that a company waives the attorney-client privilege by voluntarily sharing privileged information with the government—even under the protection of a confidentiality agreement between the company and the government.
This approach was recently affirmed in In re Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., 192 F.R.D. 575, 579 (M.D. Tenn. 2000). Columbia/HCA shared privileged information with the government under a confidentiality agreement. The court found that a private plaintiff could obtain access to the information despite this confidentiality agreement, because Columbia/HCA’s voluntary sharing of privileged information with the government (which was an adversary in this case) waived the privilege. Although the confidentiality agreement might bind the signatories to the agreement, it did not bind the private plaintiff who had not signed the agreement.
Lawyers and clients should be aware of the risks whenever they share privileged information with government agencies.