Entire Military File Not Discoverable in Florida Personal Injury Case without In Camera Review – Muller v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Defendants in personal injury cases often try to get as much information about a plaintiff as possible. Florida rules of procedure allow a defendant to obtain discovery of any non-privileged matter that is relevant to the subject matter of the case. A discovery request is not subject to an objection just because the information or documents it requests would be inadmissible, as long as the request is reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence.

Florida courts have recognized, however, that the right to privacy in the Florida Constitution limits the courts from compelling disclosure of information that is not necessary for the court to determine the issues before it. Section 23 of Article 1 of the Florida Constitution states, “Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided herein.”

In a recent case, the Second District held that the defendant’s right to discovery of the plaintiff’s military record was limited to those portions of the record that were relevant to the case.

Muller v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. arose from an automobile accident in which the plaintiff was struck by a vehicle belonging to Wal-Mart and driven by one of its employees. Although the suit included the driver and another entity, only the plaintiff and Wal-Mart were involved in this appeal.

The plaintiff sought damages for permanent injury, pain and suffering, aggravation of pre-existing conditions, medical expenses, loss of earnings and earning capacity, and several other types of damages. The plaintiff had served in the military for several years and had three injuries during that time. The plaintiff disclosed this information during discovery but stated that he was not seeking damages for the aggravation of any of those three injuries. The defendant then requested that the plaintiff produce his entire military personnel file and medical records, as well as an “undeleted” DD Form 214. The undeleted DD Form 214 would contain information about the plaintiff’s military service, including information about the plaintiff’s separation from the military that the form identifies as sensitive information.

The plaintiff objected to the request, asserting that it asked for irrelevant information and was a violation of his right to privacy under the Florida Constitution. The plaintiff requested that the court at least inspect the records in camera before it compelled him to produce them. The defendant argued that the information was necessary, in part to determine the plaintiff’s ability to observe and understand his surroundings when the accident occurred. The circuit court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation to grant the discovery request.

Citing case law, the district court noted that when a discovery order is challenged on the basis of the constitutional right to privacy, the trial court must review the records in camera to determine their relevance to the case. Failing to do so can cause irreparable harm that may be reviewable on certiorari.

The district court acknowledged that the military records likely contained some evidence that would assist the defendant in its case. The court further stated that the records likely also contain irrelevant information that would result in an intrusion on his privacy rights if he had to disclose it. The district court found that the circuit court had departed from the essential requirements of law when it ordered the plaintiff to produce all of the records requested without reviewing them in camera. The court granted the writ of certiorari and quashed the circuit court’s order, directing the circuit court to conduct an in camera inspection and separate the irrelevant documents.

If you have been injured by someone else’s negligence, the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine can help you pursue the compensation you deserve while preserving your privacy as much as possible. You can schedule a consultation by contacting us at (800) 747-3733, or submitting an online contact form.

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