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Acquittal of U.S. Corporate Counsel Shows Importance of Outside Advice in Safety Investigations

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A U.S. judge has acquitted an in-house lawyer on obstruction charges, in part because she consulted widely with outside counsel.  The decision, while not involving an occupational health and safety matter, demonstrates the importance of corporate counsel obtaining outside advice from a safety lawyer when confronted with the “drop everything” urgency of an accident investigation by government safety officers.

Lauren Stevens was charged with failing to give complete answers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in response to a request for information during an investigation.

United States District Judge Roger Titus stated:

“As to all counts relating to the question of advice of counsel, the evidence in this case can only support one conclusion, and that is that the defendant sought and obtained the advice and counsel of numerous lawyers. She made full disclosure to them. Every decision that she made and every letter she wrote was done by a consensus.”

Ms. Stevens had acted in good faith, on the advice of outside counsel. The charges against her were dismissed.

When government safety inspectors investigate a serious accident, counsel must make quick decisions about issues such as privilege, creation of investigation reports, and when – and whether – an employee must give a statement.  The U.S. District Court’s decision suggests that corporate counsel can protect him/herself – in addition to the organization – by obtaining outside advice.

The decision may be read here