In a personal injury action, it is not uncommon for the parties to attempt to obtain as much information as possible about each other. This can lead to instances in which a party’s personal and private information is exposed to public view. The judicial system has developed a process for determining whether sensitive information is discoverable in a lawsuit. This process stems from the Florida Constitution, which prohibits a court from requiring a party to disclose information that is not necessary to the court’s determination of the issues before it.
In the recent case of Muller v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a Florida district court concluded that the defendant’s right to obtain the plaintiff’s military record through discovery was limited to the portions of the military record that were relevant to the litigation.
The lawsuit arose when the car in which the plaintiff was riding was struck by a truck driven by one of the defendant’s employees. The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit seeking damages for permanent injuries he sustained in the crash in addition to aggravation of pre-existing conditions, pain and suffering, medical expenses, loss of earning capacity, and many more. Prior to being involved in the injury, the plaintiff served in the military for several years, suffering three injuries during that time. Although the plaintiff provided this information using discovery, he noted that he was not seeking damages for the aggravation of these injuries.
In response, the defendant sent a discovery request seeking the defendant’s entire military file and medical records, in addition to the defendant’s “undeleted” DD Form 214. This form is issued at the time a soldier or officer is discharged from service and provides comprehensive information about their service, including sensitive information about the individual’s reason for separating from the military.
The plaintiff objected to the request, claiming that it violated his right to privacy under the Florida Constitution. In the event the court deemed the information discoverable, the plaintiff requested that the court perform an initial inspection of the material, known as an in camera review, in order to determine whether the information was necessary to the lawsuit. The defendant argued that the contents of the military file were necessary to its investigation of the lawsuit, particularly in regard to determining the plaintiff’s ability to understand and observe his surroundings at the time of the collision. The circuit court granted the defendant’s request and compelled the plaintiff to produce the records.
The district court relied on well-established case law to reach its holding that an in camera inspection must take place before the plaintiff can be compelled to provide the potentially sensitive and irrelevant information. The case law clearly states that when a discovery ruling is challenged on the grounds that it violates a party’s constitutional right to privacy, the court must perform an in camera review to decide whether the information is necessary and relevant to the litigation. Failing to conduct this in camera inspection can cause the producing party irreparable harm that may constitute a reversible error on appellate review.
After performing its in camera inspection, the court concluded that, although some of the information was relevant to the litigation, the records also contain irrelevant information that would result in a violation of the plaintiff’s privacy if disclosed during the litigation. The district court reversed the circuit court’s order, noting that the circuit court failed to follow the law when it issued its order requiring the plaintiff to produce the records without first performing an in camera inspection. The district court quashed the circuit court’s order and directed the circuit court to perform an in camera inspection and remove any irrelevant documents.
If you or someone you know has been involved in motor vehicle collision or other type of accident resulting from another person’s negligence, the personal injury lawyers at Lusk, Drasites & Tolisano can help. We proudly serve residents throughout Southwest Florida, including Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and Naples. Our experienced legal team will guide you through every step of the legal process and fight zealously for your rights along the way. Call us now at 1-800-283-7442 or contact us online to set up your free, no-obligation consultation.