Following the filing of a complaint, litigants spend a considerable amount of time engaged in discovery, the stage of litigation during which the parties exchange information that will likely be relevant for the development and adjudication of the case. Although both state and federal discovery rules are quite broad, disputes during the discovery process are far from uncommon. Indeed, even when the information may be relevant, litigants will often cite various forms of privilege in an effort to preclude the exchange of information. When the parties reach an impasse, the trial court is often asked to resolve the dispute, and in a recent decision, City of Port St. Lucie v. Follano, the Fourth District Court of Appeal examined the responsibilities a trial court has in resolving a discovery dispute.
Follano began when the soon-to-be plaintiff stepped into an uncovered sewer access pipe. The plaintiff was caught up to her knee and had to be extracted by the fire department. On the day of the accident, photographs were taken by a representative for the City of Port St. Lucie, the defendant in this case. The city’s photographs show the uncovered sewer pipe, but the city argued that much of the area had been altered by the firefighters who were working in the area. The plaintiff did take photos of the site of the accident on the following day. However, the sewer had been covered by that time. During discovery, the plaintiff moved for an order compelling the city to produce the photographs, arguing that these photos were the only available evidence of the pipe’s appearance at the time of the accident. The city opposed the motion, contending that the photos fell within the work product doctrine. Without examining the photos and relying on the representations of the plaintiff’s counsel, the trial court granted the motion compelling production. The city appealed the court’s decision.
Pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.280(b)(4), a party may be compelled to produce work product “only upon a showing that the party seeking discovery has need of the materials in the preparation of the case and is unable without undue hardship to obtain the substantial equivalent of the materials by other means.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(b)(4). The Fourth District has held that if the work product privilege is asserted, the trial court must conduct an in camera inspection of the materials sought to ensure that the privilege applies. Snyder v. Value Rent-A-Car, 736 So. 2d 780 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999). Only after performing this inspection may the trial court determine that production pursuant to Rule 1.280 is warranted. Id. at 782. As indicated above, the trial court in this case did not perform an in camera inspection prior to finding the photographs should be compelled from the city. Although Snyder indicates that the inspection is simply to confirm that the materials are actually subject to privilege, the Fourth District also noted that inspection is also intended to ensure that the party seeking compulsion has satisfied the burden imposed by Rule 1.280. See, e.g., Fla. E. Coast Ry. v. Jones, 847 So. 2d 1118, 1119 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003) (directing the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing with in camera inspection “in order to determine whether the plaintiff could make the requisite showing of need”). Since the trial court failed to conduct an in camera inspection, the Fourth District vacated the order compelling production and reversed with an instruction that an in camera inspection take place.
Given the likely probative value of these photos, the trial court may very well still compel their production following an in camera inspection. However, this case aptly demonstrates that the process a court uses in reaching a determination can be as important as the conclusion it reaches. Given the preeminent importance of procedure in adjudicating any case, anyone considering bringing a legal action to redress his or her injury should consider finding counsel knowledgeable in all the rules that may arise. The South Florida premises liability attorneys at FK Legal have represented numerous injured South Floridians and are well versed in the procedural rules of both state and federal courts. If you’ve recently been injured and are curious about the viability of your possible claim, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.