It is understood that bringing legal action will expose your personal life to some degree of outside scrutiny. Indeed, court records are, except in limited circumstances, made available to the public. Although the dockets in most cases aren’t particularly intriguing to third parties, many litigants are legitimately concerned about what facts they let become part of a public record. This dynamic was at the heart of a recent decision from Florida’s Second District Court, Muller v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which required the Second District Court of Appeal to determine whether a plaintiff’s military records were discoverable in his personal injury case.
Muller started with an accident in 2012. The plaintiff was hit by a truck owned by Wal-Mart that was being driven by an employee at a corporate distribution center. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff sustained various injuries and brought suit against Wal-Mart for various forms of bodily injuries, including, inter alia, aggravation of preexisting conditions. During the course of discovery, the defendants learned that the plaintiff had previously served in the military for more than a decade. The plaintiff stated that he had three injuries associated with his military service but asserted that he was not seeking damages for aggravation of any of his military-related injuries. Subsequently, the defendants served an additional discovery request, seeking the plaintiff’s military records. The plaintiff objected, arguing that the request was both irrelevant and violated his right to privacy under the Florida Constitution. The defendants moved to compel the discovery, and the trial court granted the motion in its entirety. Thereafter, the plaintiff brought the current appeal, seeking immediate review of the trial court’s discovery decision.
Discovery rules under state law are quite broad. However, “[t]he right of privacy set forth in . . . the Florida Constitution . . . expresses a policy that compelled disclosure . . . be limited to [materials] necessary for a court to determine contested issues.” Ryan v. Landsource Holding Co., LLC, 127 So. 3d 764, 767 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013). In this case, the Second District’s reversal was not predicated on there not being possibly relevant materials within the military records. Instead, the court focused on the procedural defects at issue. Specifically, when a party challenging disclosure raises a constitutional objection to the discovery, the trial court is required to perform a review of the actual materials sought in order to determine which documents are relevant and separate those that are not. See James v. Veneziano, 98 So. 3d 697, 698 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012). Here, neither the trial judge nor the magistrate judge who initially recommended that the discovery order be granted reviewed the materials directly. Although the Second District noted that there might very well be relevant documents in the military records, it was error for the trial court to compel the discovery in its entirety without first engaging in this review because there are also documents that were likely not relevant and would harm the plaintiff’s privacy interests if disclosed. Accordingly, the Second District reversed with instructions that the trial court performs the necessary review.
Although the plaintiff in this case will likely be forced to disclose certain items in his military records, the trip to the Second District helps assure that at least some documents remain out of the public record. While many defendants will not make brazen discovery requests, a litigant should always be prepared for the challenge should it arise. Indeed, litigation involves more than trial, and many litigants would benefit from the aid of experienced counsel who can guide them through all the steps of the process. If you’ve recently been injured and are curious about the legal options you have, the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have ample experience representing seriously injured Floridians in both state and federal court. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a free case consultation.