In April 2010, an offshore drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers died and crude oil from the well spilled into the Gulf for months after the accident. The result was a mass of litigation involving multiple defendants. In order to deal with the extensive facts and individuals involved in this case, like many other cases, the parties can appeal just one issue of the case if the lower court denies or grants a judgment on that particular issue.
Normally, a decision must be a final one in order to be appealed. That generally means that the case has concluded and the lower court has rendered a judgment. That way, the appeals court considers all of the facts involved, but can still allow the lower court to do most of the fact analysis. However, there are some occasions where an appeal on just one issue is allowed. This is known as an interlocutory appeal, and it falls under the collateral order doctrine. The collateral order doctrine assumes that some decisions are “final in effect although they do not dispose of the litigation.”
In order to use the collateral order doctrine, the lower court must have 1) conclusively determined the disputed question, 2) resolved an important issue that is completely separate from the final decision in the case, and 3) the issue must also be effectively unreviewable on appeal in a final judgment. “Effectively unreviewable” means that the court of appeals will have no way to review the decision of the lower court once the lower court makes a decision on this particular issue. Generally, if the decision could be appealed in some other way than the interlocutory appeal, then the court will not use the interlocutory appeal.
In the oil spill case, parties assumed that one worker in particular held a great deal of information because he was the BP Well Site Leader on duty aboard the rig at the time of the accident. However, the Site Leader had an undisclosed medical condition that prohibited him from testifying or answering written questions. The Site Leader explained his medical condition to the judge on two separate occasions, but did not disclose the information to the parties.
Since the parties believed that he was such a valuable witness, they really wanted to obtain information from him. As such, another judge ordered an independent doctor to examine him and ordered the Site Leader to produce his medical records to the independent doctor. The Site Leader protested because he was concerned about sharing his personal information. This order is a discovery decision, and discovery decisions are appealable after the final decision of the court based on the use of inadmissible evidence.
One of the Site Leader’s major arguments, however, was that releasing his personal medical information would cause a great deal of harm to him personally, and there is no method on appeal to reverse that type of harm. Nonetheless, the court determined that district courts can “burden litigants in ways that are only imperfectly reparable by appellate reversal of the final district court judgment.” Therefore, even though there may be harm that cannot be reversed for the Site Leader, the court will still allow the medical information to come in because the final verdict could change on appeal if the information is removed later. To use another example, the court explains that even if the information is privileged, that does not make it appropriate for an interlocutory appeal.
The court only briefly considered the rights of the Site Leader and his concern about protecting his personal information. In that discussion, they explain that they weighed the costs of sharing his information with the benefits of having his testimony at trial and determined that the benefits outweighed the costs.
As result, the court determined that it could not use the collateral order doctrine and that the interlocutory appeal was inappropriate. Therefore, the court dismissed the appeal and allowed the bulk of the case to continue in the lower court.
Civil procedure issues can be a delicate balance between protecting the case and protecting the individuals involved in the case.