Case Updates: High Courts Rule on Privacy, Compensation Matters

courtroom.jpgIn light of recent court rulings on both the federal and State levels impacting issues previously discussed in this blog, we would like to offer our readers the following updates.

A blog published here approximately one year ago entitled, “Proposed Law Would Allow Police to Search Cell Phones at Accident Scene without a Warrant” discussed a bill presented to New Jersey lawmakers that called for granting police officers at the scene of an accident the authority to search a cell phone’s history of calls and messages without obtaining a warrant. The intent of the bill was to help police in determining whether or not use of a phone contributed to an accident.

The bill was one more effort in the fight against distracted driving. While most people can agree that distracted driving is a growing problem plaguing the State’s roadways, the above-mentioned bill did meet with opposition from those believing it constituted an invasion of privacy, a viewpoint the U.S. Supreme Court appears to share.(1)

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that search warrants must be issued prior to police searching a person’s cell phone, even under circumstances where the search was related to an arrest. The justices explained that most cell phones today are more like minicomputers than phones and, as such, contain a vast amount of personal information. Approximately 200 million people in the U.S. reportedly now use smartphones on which they store all sorts of personal data, including healthcare information,(2) that some fear could be breached in a search. As such, the justices decided, these phones should fall under the protection of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects U.S. citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.(1)

In handing down its decision, the Court did allow for certain exceptions, including instances that threatened public safety or circumstances under which there was the threat evidence could be destroyed in the time it would take to obtain the search warrant.(1)

Law enforcement officials have argued that advances in technology make it easier for criminals to operate while making it more difficult for police to capture them. The court, however, ruled that an individual’s right to privacy takes precedence over those concerns.(1)

In a separate matter, the New Jersey Supreme Court last month overturned a State appellate court ruling that upheld an earlier decision to grant workers’ compensation benefits to the widower of a woman whose sedentary job conditions allegedly contributed to her death.(3)

Originally reported here July 2011 in a blog entitled, “Court Rules Sedentary Job Led to Worker’s Death; Husband Entitled to Benefits,” the case involved a former AT&T employee who died as the result of a pulmonary embolism (blood clot), after a more than 10-hour shift spent sitting at her computer.

According to earlier reports the woman, Cathleen Renner of Edison, NJ, died in 2007 shortly after putting in a prolonged shift in her home office to meet an important work deadline. Following her death, her husband filed a workmen’s compensation claim to collect death benefits. New Jersey State law allows employees to collect benefits for injuries or illnesses incurred in connection with their work and dependents of those employees to collect benefits if the employee dies as a result of a job-related activity.

Mr. Renner claimed his wife, whom he said maintained an active lifestyle in her personal time, developed her embolism as a direct result of spending long hours in front of her computer as her job required. AT&T disputed that claim, pointing out other things that may have led to her death, including her weight, which was reported at more than 300 pounds, and her use of birth control pills, which are known to increase the risk of developing blood clots.

The initial court ruling, which was in Mr. Renner’s favor, was upheld by the appellate court in 2011. Last week, the State Supreme Court reversed that ruling, however, stating that the evidence did not support the notion that Mrs. Renner’s job was to blame for her death. The court pointed to various activities undertaken by Mrs. Renner during that work shift, including sending and receiving emails, taking telephone calls, and reading, which did not require her to remain seated for uninterrupted periods of time. Therefore, the court ruled, it could not be determined that the work alone contributed to her death.(3)

(1) http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/07/editorial_supreme_court_ruling_on_illegal_smartphone_searches.html
(2) http://benton.org/node/190470
(3) http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/07/nj_supreme_court_overturns_decision_in_case_of_worker_who_died_from_blood_clot.html