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How the Fifth Amendment can Affect a Georgia Personal Injury Case

We have all heard the famous police warning, “You have the right to remain silent.” It is a bedrock principle of constitutional law: No person can be compelled to testify against him or herself in a criminal proceeding. What about a civil lawsuit, such as a personal injury claim, arising from a potential criminal act? How does the Fifth Amendment affect a victim’s ability to seek compensation?

U-Haul Company of Arizona v. Rutland

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed a case dealing with these issues. In U-Haul Company of Arizona v. Rutland, a widow sued multiple parties, alleging they were responsible for her husband’s death in an October 2015 car accident. To be more specific, a drunk driver operating a rented U-Haul truck crossed a center line and hit the victim’s car in a head-on collision. Police subsequently arrested the driver and charged him with vehicular homicide and DUI, among other charges.

The driver remained in jail as the widow’s civil lawsuit proceeded to discovery. In response to multiple discovery requests, the driver invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. He also asked the trial court to delay the widow’s civil lawsuit until his criminal charge was resolved. The widow maintained that the driver waived his constitutional rights because he “gave a statement to insurance company investigators” following the accident. Notwithstanding the widow’s objection, the trial court granted the stay and issued a protective order, preventing the widow from making any further discovery requests.

The Court of Appeals vacated the protective order, however, because it said the trial judge failed to “ascertain whether the [Fifth Amendment] privilege was appropriate for each response in which it was invoked.” As the appeals court explained, there is “no blanket Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions in civil proceedings.” Rather, a defendant must specifically claim the privilege for each particular question where it is invoked, and the trial court must determine if the exercise of privilege is valid. Here, the trial judge simply issued a “cursory” order broadly denying the widow’s discovery requests, both for oral answers and documentation, based on a broad assertion of Fifth Amendment rights. The appeals court said the widow was entitled to a more careful review by the trial court.

As for whether or not the driver waived privilege by speaking to insurance investigators, on this point the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge–there was no waiver. As a general rule, the appeals court explained a waiver must occur in the “same trial or proceeding where the privilege is claimed.” And in any event, judges should not “infer” a waiver of a person’s Fifth Amendment rights.

Finally, the appeals court noted the trial judge’s stay was now moot, as it was only for 120 days and that time had elapsed prior to the Court of Appeals’ decision.