Privacy Rights – Personal Injury Claims and Your Computer Hard Drive
A developing area of law is electronic discovery.
In the personal injury context the BC Supreme Court Rules require relevant, non privileged documents to be disclosed to opposing counsel. The definition of document includes “any information recorded or stored by any means of any device“. So, if there is relevant information, be it printed, on a computer or even on a cell phone, discovery needs to be made in compliance with the Rules of Court.
In recent years electronic documents have been the subject of court applications and Insurance companies / Defendants have sometimes been successful in gaining access to a Plaintiff computer’s hard drive. Reasons for judgement were released today by the Supreme Court of Canada discussing court orders for the seizure of computer hard drives.
Today’s case (R v. Morelli) dealt with a criminal law matter. However the Canadian High Court’s reasons may be of some use in the personal injury context.
By way of background the Defendant was charged with a criminal code offence. One of the reasons for the charges was evidence that was apparently obtained from the Defendant’s computer which was seized pursuant to a search warrant.
The Defendant was convicted at trial. The Supreme Court of Canada, in a very close split decision (4-3) overturned the conviction on the basis that the search warrant never should have been ordered because there were no reasonable and probable grounds to issue it.
While this case strictly dealt with criminal search warrants and the necessary evidence to obtain one, the Canadian High Court made some very strong comments about the intrusive effects of computer searches and this reasoning very well may have persuasive value for Courts considering whether they should give insurance companies access to Plaintiffs computers. Specifically the Supreme Court of Canada provided the following comments:
 This case concerns the right of everyone in Canada, including the appellant, to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure. And it relates, more particularly, to the search and seizure of personal computers.
 It is difficult to imagine a search more intrusive, extensive, or invasive of one’s privacy than the search and seizure of a personal computer.
3] First, police officers enter your home, take possession of your computer, and carry it off for examination in a place unknown and inaccessible to you. There, without supervision or constraint, they scour the entire contents of your hard drive: your emails sent and received; accompanying attachments; your personal notes and correspondence; your meetings and appointments; your medical and financial records; and all other saved documents that you have downloaded, copied, scanned, or created. The police scrutinize as well the electronic roadmap of your cybernetic peregrinations, where you have been and what you appear to have seen on the Internet — generally by design, but sometimes by accident.
 That is precisely the kind of search that was authorized in this case. And it was authorized on the strength of an Information to Obtain a Search Warrant (“ITO”) that was carelessly drafted, materially misleading, and factually incomplete. The ITO invoked an unsupported stereotype of an ill-defined “type of offender” and imputed that stereotype to the appellant. In addition, it presented a distorted portrait of the appellant and of his surroundings and conduct in his own home at the relevant time…
 As I mentioned at the outset, it is difficult to imagine a more intrusive invasion of privacy than the search of one’s home and personal computer. Computers often contain our most intimate correspondence. They contain the details of our financial, medical, and personal situations. They even reveal our specific interests, likes, and propensities, recording in the browsing history and cache files the information we seek out and read, watch, or listen to on the Internet. ..
 The public must have confidence that invasions of privacy are justified, in advance, by a genuine showing of probable cause. To admit the evidence in this case and similar cases in the future would undermine that confidence in the long term.
When considering whether a Defendant should be allowed access to a Plaintiff’s computer in a personal injury lawsuit I should point out that the New BC Supreme Court Civil Rules will change the scope of documents that need to be disclosed. Specifically, the test for what documents are discoverable will be altered.
Under the current system parties must disclose documents “relating to every matter in question in the action“. Under the new rules this test has been changed to “all documents that are or have been in a parties possession or control that could be used by any party to prove or disprove a material fact” and “all other documents to which a party intends to refer at trial“.
This new test is supposed to be narrower in scope than the current one. Time will tell how this new test will change disclosure requirements in the prosecution of personal injury actions however, given the fact that this new test will be applied alongside principles of proportionality there very well may be narrower disclosure requirements in smaller personal injury claims and greater obligations in the prosecution of more serious claims.
I will continue to write about this area of British Columbia personal injury law as it develops in the coming months.