Recently, a Florida plaintiff’s daughter posted a status update on her father’s settlement. It proved to be a terrible error in judgment. The father had been a headmaster whose contract was not renewed. He sued his former employer in federal court and won an $80,000 settlement. The agreement included a confidentiality clause. It prohibited both the plaintiff and the school from talking about the case.
His daughter, however, bragged about the settlement on Facebook to 1200 friends, noting it would pay for her vacation to Europe and telling the school to “suck it.” A number of the friends were former classmates at the prep school, which she had attended. When the school’s lawyers found out, they stated they wouldn’t pay. The plaintiff filed a motion to enforcement the settlement. In his view, his daughter was retaliated against and was a part of what was happening. She had known about the mediation and he felt he had to share what had happened with her. He won the motion to enforce in Circuit Court, but the school appealed.
The Third District Court of Appeal for the state of Florida found for the school and reversed the Circuit Court, throwing out the $80,000 settlement. The court explained that the daughter had done exactly what the agreement was supposed to prevent.
You may be wondering about what this means for confidential settlements in personal injury cases. Under Florida’s Sunshine in Litigation Act, s. 69.081, F.S. (Act), a state court may not enter an order for the purpose of concealing information related to a public hazard or that could be useful to the public in avoiding an injury that arose from a public hazard. This law is invoked most often in product liability cases. When a party wants confidentiality for this type of information, it has to file a motion showing good cause to keep the information confidential. The court has to examine the disputed information behind closed doors to see whether there’s good cause. The Act applies to settlement agreements as well as discovery orders.
The law was enacted in 1990 after a public debate arose about the issue of transparency in tort litigation. On one side of the debate are those that believe the court should focus solely on resolving disputes between the parties. On the other side, some argue that because courts are publicly funded they owe a duty to the public. Although many agree that settlement as opposed to trial is a social good, there is no consensus on whether permitting confidentiality clause promotes settlement. Defendants often offer money to buy a plaintiff’s silence about a dangerous practice or instrumentality.
If a court permits a settlement to be confidential or the statute does not apply because no public hazard is involved, a plaintiff must exercise caution. Like other contracts, a confidentiality clause in a contract will be interpreted for its plain language first. In general, you should not use social media to talk about a lawsuit while it is ongoing. The statements you make can be used to damage your case. You definitely shouldn’t discuss the lawsuit or the amount of the settlement at all, if confidentiality is a express condition of your settlement with the defendant. Although you may have your Facebook setting set to “private” or a locked Twitter account, these are often treated as public forums in litigation.
If you are seriously hurt in an accident that is somebody else’s fault, contact the knowledgeable Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.
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