Court Abused Discretion by Allowing Direct Access to Databases Sans Evidence of Improper Conduct

In re Ford Motor Co., 345 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir. 2003)

Personal injury plaintiff alleged that seatbelt buckle was defectively designed because it “inertially unlatched” during an accident, causing her injuries. Plaintiff filed a motion to compel seeking direct access to two Ford databases for the purpose of conducting searches for related claims; one database contained records of all customer contacts with Ford, and the other contained records of contacts by dealers, personnel and other sources.

After the trial court granted the motion, Ford sought a writ of mandamus or prohibition from the court of appeals, which was granted.

The court stated:

Like the other discovery rules, Rule 34(a) allows the responding party to search his records to produce the required, relevant data. Rule 34(a) does not give the requesting party the right to conduct the actual search. While at times – perhaps due to improper conduct on the part of the responding party – the requesting party itself may need to check the data compilation, the district court must “protect respondent with respect to preservation of his records, confidentiality of nondiscoverable matters, and costs.”

2003 WL 22171712, at *2. The court noted that the district court made no findings – express or implied – that Ford had failed to comply properly with discovery requests, and faulted the district court for not discussing Ford’s legitimate objections and providing no substantive explanation for the court’s ruling.

Furthermore, in its order, the district court granted Russell unlimited, direct access to Ford’s databases. The district court established no protocols for the search. The court did not even designate search terms to restrict the search. Without constraints, the order grants [plaintiff] access to information that would not – and should not – otherwise be discoverable without Ford first having an opportunity to object.

While some kind of direct access might be permissible in certain cases, this case has not been shown to be one of those cases. [Plaintiff] is unentitled to this kind of discovery without – at the outset – a factual finding of some non-compliance with discovery rules by Ford. By granting the sweeping order in this case, especially without such a finding, the district court clearly abused its discretion

Id. at *2-3.

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