Florida Court Rebuffs Request For Social Media Discovery

We knew it was coming, and we’ve seen evidence of it already. Courts are beginning to limit the nature of social media discovery, chiefly in light of the fact that we live so much of our lives online that not every post or status update can be discoverable in a lawsuit. Yesterday, in Root v. Balfour Beatty Const. LLC— So.3d —-, (Fla. Ct. App. Feb. 05, 2014), the Florida Court of Appeals overturned a magistrate’s order in a negligence case that had required the Plaintiff to produce a host of materials from her Facebook account. The Plaintiff was suing on behalf of her young son who was injured in an automobile accident near a construction site (the safety of which was at issue in the proceeding). It does not appear that the Plaintiff was present at the scene of the accident, and at that time, Plaintiff’s son was being supervised by his 17 year old aunt (which led to a negligent entrustment affirmative defense).

Here’s what the defendant’s asked for:

(o.) Any and all postings, statuses, photos, “likes” or videos related to [Plaintiff's]‘s
i. Relationships with [the injured child] or her other children, both prior to, and following, the accident;
ii. Relationships with other family members, boyfriends, husbands, and/or significant others, both prior to, and following the accident;
iii. Mental health, stress complaints, alcohol use or other substance use, both prior to and after, the accident;

….

v. Facebook account postings relating to any lawsuit filed after the accident by [Plaintiff] or others[.]

Not surprisingly, the Plaintiff object to the discovery requests on the grounds that they were overbroad. The Court of Appeals bought this argument, noting:

[Plaintiff's] complaint contains claims on behalf of [the injured child] for negligence as to each defendant and Root’s derivative claims for loss of parental consortium. Defendants responded with several affirmative defenses including negligent entrustment of [the injured child] by [Plaintiff], the aunt’s failure to supervise, and the driver’s negligence. As to [the injured child's] claims for negligence, none of the objected-to discovery pertains to the accident itself. Similarly, none of the objected-to discovery pertains to Defendants’ affirmative defenses. Instead, the discovery relates to [Plaintiff's] past and present personal relationships with all her children, other family members, and significant others; [Plaintiff's] past and present mental health, stress complaints, and use of alcohol or other substances; and lawsuits of any nature filed by [Plaintiff] or others after the accident.

At the hearing before the magistrate, the party seeking discovery didn’t help itself by noting that “These are all things that we would like to look under the hood, so to speak, and figure out whether that’s even a theory worth exploring.” Well, we as defense lawyers probably need to articulate the basis for our social media discovery requests a bit more artfully (although the magistrate judge, who apparently remarked at the hearing that “95 percent, or 99 percent of this may not be relevant,” did require production of the materials requested). The lesson: tailor social media discovery requests to require production of materials related as closely as can be to the claims and defenses in the case.

Comments

  1. One wonders if the request would have passed muster if it was drawn more narrowly. It will be interesting to see this battle between a right of privacy and a right to free discovery of information in Florida and other states. I certainly think that any plaintiff’s counsel would be wise to advise clients to not post anything on social media that could come back to hurt their claims.

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