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Federal Court Rules that Most of Army’s Report Concerning Accident is Subject to Military Safety Privilege

In a Knoxville personal injury lawsuit arising from a car accident or other vehicular collision, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant is legally liable for his or her medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages stemming from the accident.

In litigating his or her claim, the plaintiff will likely pursue the discovery of evidence from a variety of sources, including governmental entities. While the law of evidence provides a basic structure for the resolution of these issues, some matters must be decided on a case-by-case basis.

A recent, rather unusual case arising from an accident in military vehicle is illustrative.

Facts of the Case

A recent federal case arose from an accident at a military base in which the plaintiff cadet was injured while driving a vehicle made by the defendant manufacturer. After the plaintiff filed suit against the defendant seeking compensation for his injuries, a dispute arose regarding whether certain documents pertaining to the Army’s investigation of the incident were discoverable in the litigation. According to the Army, which was not a formal party to the suit, two investigations had been conducted: 1) an informal legal investigation aimed at inquiring into the facts and circumstances of the mishap (as well as obtaining and preserving all available evidence for possible later use in litigation or other actions) and 2) a safety investigation whose purpose was to “prevent mishaps.”

The Army produced the complete report of the legal investigation, not subject to any privilege. With regard to the safety investigation, however, the Army produced only a redacted copy of the report, citing the military safety privilege. The defendant filed a motion challenging the Army’s invocation of the safety privilege. A magistrate judge denied the defendant’s motion, and the defendant sought further review from the district court judge.

Decision of the Court

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville affirmed the magistrate judge’s order except as to three particular sentences of the report. The court began by noting that, unlike in a “typical” case involving an issue of privilege, both of the parties already knew what was contained in the unredacted report because someone from the Army had inadvertently sent the defendant a copy of it, and the defendant had produced it to the plaintiff. Thus, the court deemed that the true issue was not whether the safety investigation report could be discovered but, rather, whether it could be used by the parties at trial (particularly by the defendant, who apparently believed that the redacted report was more favorable to it than the report based upon the “legal investigation” of the accident).

In agreeing with most of the magistrate judge’s ruling as to the applicability of the military safety privilege to the document at issue, the court considered addressed several factors, including the relevance of the information at hand, the availability of other evidence, the seriousness of the litigation and issues involved, the government’s role in the litigation, and the possibility that government employees might be rendered timid by the recognition that their secrets were violable.

Contact an Experienced Knoxville Personal Injury Lawyer

At the Hartsoe Law Firm, we handle a wide variety of personal injury claims, including car, truck, and motorcycle accident cases. For a free, no-obligation consultation, call us now at 865-524-5657 and request an appointment in our Knoxville or Maryville offices.  Evidence can become more difficult to obtain with the passage of time, making a case more difficult to win, so talking to a lawyer sooner rather than later is advisable.

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