Florida Appellate Court Reviews Issue of Privacy in Auto Accident Case

A Florida appellate court recently reviewed the issue of when a driver’s personnel file can be compelled for purposes of providing proof in an auto accident case in Walker v. Ruot. That case arose from a car accident in which an employee of Bright House Networks LLC injured the plaintiff couple by rear-ending their vehicle with a Bright House van.

The couple filed a lawsuit alleging negligence against both employee and employer. In the course of the lawsuit, the couple served on the employer a request to produce the personnel file of the driver. The employer objected that the personnel file included information irrelevant to the lawsuit and that producing the personnel file violated the driver’s right to privacy.

The couple filed a motion to compel the personnel file in the lower court. At the hearing for the motion they argued that the information contained in the file might support their claims against the employer for negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, or negligent retention. They also argued it might help them locate the employee to serve him with the lawsuit. The employer again objected as to the relevance of the personnel file, but agreed it did not have standing to assert its employee’s privacy rights.

The trial court did not conduct an in camera (private) inspection. It simply ordered the employer to produce the personnel file and ruled that the documents were relevant. The employer appealed this decision.

The appellate court reasoned that the employer did not have standing to assert its employee’s privacy rights, but did have standing to oppose production of private information within the file. The basis for this standing was that, as the employer had argued, the private information was not necessarily relevant to the couple’s auto accident lawsuit.

The appellate court reasoned that personnel files do contain sensitive personal information. The trial court should have been cautious about a wholesale disclosure of the contents of the file. In this case, the employee had not been served with the complaint so he was not able to personally assert a privacy objection. Nonetheless, the trial court had to balance his right of privacy with any right to know certain information that was asserted by the couple.

In Florida, when privacy rights are implicated in a trial process like a request for documents or motion to compel, the discovery must be narrowly drawn. A trial court must balance the plaintiff’s right to obtain discoverable information with a defendant’s right to privacy in such information as his compensation, benefits and pension.

The appellate court in this case acknowledged that information regarding the defendant’s training, competence and disciplinary history would be relevant to the negligence issues asserted by the couple. Information about where Walker was located would also be relevant and could be compelled.

In this type of case, the trial court must inspect the file in camera and separate relevant documents that are discoverable from irrelevant documents that are not. The Florida appellate court granted the petition ruling that the trial court should have first conducted an in camera review, before requiring production of the entire personnel file.

Pretrial motions like the one described above can sometimes alert the other side to weaknesses or strengths in a case. If you or a loved one have been injured and suffered due to an auto accident, call the experienced South Florida car accident attorneys of Friedman, Rodman & Frank for a consultation at 877-448-8585. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All consultations are free and confidential.

Florida Appellate Decision Recognizes Importance of Accident Victim’s Right to Seek Counsel, South Florida Personal Injury Lawyers Blog, May 6, 2013
Florida Legislative Ban on Texting While Driving, South Florida Personal Injury Lawyers Blog, May 2, 2013

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