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Court Required to Identify Trade Secrets Prior to Order Requiring Disclosure

The Third DCA Court of Appeals overturned a trial court’s order which required disclosure of documents in the absence of a trial court’s determination that the materials did include trade secrets of the disclosing party.  Cooper Tire & Rubber Company vs. Cabrera, Case no.  No. 3D12-2922 (Fla. Dist. Ct App. 3rd May 8, 2013) (available here).

Disclosing party defendant Cooper petitioned the DCA for a writ of certiorari to quash a trial court’s order compelling production of documents Cooper claimed were protected from discovery by the trade secret privilege.  See Allstate Ins. Co. v. Langston, 655 So. 2d 91 (Fla 1995)(permitting such interlocutory appeals).  The 3rd DCA granted the petition for certiorari with instructions because “the trial court departed from the essential requirements of law by compelling production of the requested documents without first making the required findings as to whether the documents in question are, in fact, trade secrets and, if so, whether [] plaintiff [decedent Guzman, by representative Caberea] has proven reasonable necessity requiring the documents’ production.”

The Guzman family sued Cooper for negligent design and manufacture of its tires after the Guzmans’ Ford Explorer was involved in an accident.   The trial court had ordered that all documents already produced by Cooper for in camera inspection were relevant, subject to discovery, and were to be produced.  With regard to trade secrets, the trial court, in the same order, granted Cooper’s Motion and ordered that “The Defendant does have an interest in protecting its trade secrets and the court agrees that there is information in the documents produced that may rise to that level.”

Cooper argued that the trial court departed from the essential requirement of law and created irreparable injury when it ordered the production of documents claimed to be trade secrets but failed to make specific findings in its order on the reasonable necessity of production of the requested documents.  “Disclosure of discovery material that may reasonably cause material injury of an irreparable nature includes ‘cat-out-of-the-bag-material’ that could be used to injure another person or part outside of the context of litigation, such as trade secrets.  If a trial court orders production of a trade secret, it must first demonstrate the reasonable necessity of the production and set forth its findings on why reasonable necessity has been demonstrated.”

The trial court, prior to ordering production of the documents Cooper claimed to be protected from discovery by trade secrets, failed to make any findings as to whether any or all of the in camera documents in question were protected by the trade secret privilege.  The trial judge authorized disclosure of confidential material only to persons “in connection with trial preparation in this case.”  This was not sufficient since the trial court was required to first find whether the documents in question were, in fact, trade secrets and, if so, whether Guzman had proven a reasonable necessity requiring the documents’ production.

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