Attorney-Client Privilege Strengthened by Florida Supreme Court

In Florida, the communications between people and their lawyers are protected, meaning that they cannot be forced to disclose what was said with a few exceptions. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Worley vs. Young Men’s Christian Association that a defense lawyer cannot force the disclosure of a lawyer’s referral to a client to see a particular treating physician, overruling multiple decisions from lower courts. This ruling is very important for people who have been injured by the negligent actions of others, and their rights will now be better protected.

Factual background of the case

The plaintiff was a woman who tripped and fell in the parking lot of a YMCA. She initially went to the emergency room where she received treatment. The hospital referred her to see a specialist, but she did not go to see the specialist because she didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t afford to pay the doctor. Within the next two months, she retained the services of an attorney. Following that, she began receiving treatment at an orthopedic practice and filed a lawsuit against the YMCA.

Because of the extent of the plaintiff’s medical expenses, the YMCA became suspicious that the law firm that Worley retained had an established quid pro quo relationship with the orthopedic practice. The defendant demanded extensive documents from the law firm about the potential referral relationship between the firm and the practice, and it asked Worley to reveal whether or not she had been referred to the orthopedic practice by her attorney.

The attorney objected, and the court overruled the objection. In a motion to reconsider the court’s decision, the law firm attached affidavits asserting that it would take 200 hours of attorney review time to find the requested documents and that it would cost more than $96,000. The law firm also argued that the defense could not ask Worley about whether or not she had received a referral from her lawyer to see a doctor at the orthopedic practice because it would be forcing her to violate the attorney-client privilege. The court denied the motion, and the law firm appealed to the 5th District Court of Appeal, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The plaintiff then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which granted the writ of certiorari to decide the case.

Defining attorney-client privilege

The issue in the case is whether a referral made by an attorney to a client to see a specific doctor was a confidential communication that is protected by the attorney-client privilege. In general, all communications between attorneys and clients are confidential, meaning that their disclosure cannot be compelled. In the past, however, lower courts have ruled that defendants can seek evidence of a referral relationship between a doctor and a law firm in order to establish bias, which means that the doctor would be likelier to give favorable testimony on behalf of the lawyer’s client because of the referral relationship. The Florida Supreme Court overruled these lower court decisions in its ruling.

Ruling and why it is important for accident victims

The court found that any referral that may have been given by the law firm to Worley was confidential and was thus protected by attorney-client privilege. The court distinguished an earlier decision in which discovery of a referral relationship was allowed. In that case, the relationship at issue involved an expert witness who was giving testimony in court. In Worley, however, the relationship issue involved a treating doctor instead of an expert, and the relationship the defense was seeking to establish involved two non-parties to the action. The court ruled that the defendant’s interest in proving its case did not outweigh the interest in protecting attorney-client privilege. It also found that the discovery requests were burdensome because of the costs involved in complying with them.

The court’s ruling is important for a few reasons. Injured plaintiffs who would otherwise be unable to afford medical treatment may rely on referrals from their lawyers so that they can get the care that they need. If attorneys were potentially subject to spending thousands of dollars complying with discovery requests, they would be less likely to agree to accept cases that might result in costs that exceed any potential settlement or award. The court found that this would mean that injured victims would thus be less likely to be able to receive fair compensation for the injuries and losses that they incurred, which would violate the principles of public policy.

If you have suffered an injury in an accident that was not your fault, you may need legal help. Contact the personal injury attorneys at David & Philpot, P.L. today to schedule your no-cost consultation. We will work with you help you better understand the rights you have in your case.