The information we share on social media is usually an in-the-moment decision. That means we rarely agonize over the possibility of long-term consequences, and in many circumstances that’s fine. Most content won’t find its way to a courtroom or be a part of social media discovery anytime soon. However, that wasn’t true for a former semi-professional basketball player.
In January 2019, Genaro Vasquez-Santos argued he could no longer play basketball after being in a car wreck, so he filed suit against the other driver, Leena Mathew. The case initially seemed like a standard personal injury claim, but it quickly became complicated because of social media.
Mathew wanted to present evidence of a picture of Vasquez-Santos playing basketball. The picture was discovered on Facebook.
Now, we might be quick to assume Vasquez-Santos made a grave error in judgment, but he wasn’t the one who posted the image. He was tagged by a different user. Vasquez-Santos also argued that it was a basketball game he played in before the wreck.
In response, Mathew requested to employ a third-party data mining company to uncover relevant photographs or other evidence of Vasquez-Santos engaging in physical activities.
The trial court denied Mathew’s request, but the appellate court reversed the decision for two key reasons:
This was an important precedent in New York, and the case demonstrated a trend toward social media’s growing presence in the courtroom.
It might be tempting to think of this case as an outlier, but it isn’t. Cases just like this one are becoming the norm rather than the exception.
We should all be mindful of the content we post online because it can impact court cases — even if we’re not the ones who posted it. Social media is here to stay, and so are its implications for court cases.
In 2010, Jessica Lester died in a car wreck after she and her husband, Isaiah Lester, were hit by an Allied Concrete Co. truck. The driver of the truck was going too fast and lost control.
The truck driver pled guilty to manslaughter, and after a three-day trial, a jury awarded Isaiah $6.2 million for the wrongful death of his spouse and $2.3 million for personal injuries. But another seemingly straightforward case was complicated by social media.
Allied Concrete Co. requested social media discovery. In response, Isaiah’s attorney instructed him to delete 16 photos because he said, “We do not want blow-ups of other pics at trial, so please, please clean up your Facebook and Myspace!” The requested photo was of Isaiah wearing an “I ❤️ Hot Moms” t-shirt and holding a beer can. His lawyers were concerned that these images would negatively impact the judge and jury’s perception of Isaiah.
Allied Concrete Co. filed a motion to compel discovery. Many—but not all—of the photos were still produced in litigation, and ultimately, the court granted the defendant sanctions against Lester and his attorney for the spoliation of evidence.
The courts found Lester and his attorney had violated rules of professional conduct by attempting to destroy evidence subject to discovery. Lester would ultimately pay $180,000 and his attorney $542,000 to the defendant in expenses and attorney fees.
In Bland v. Roberts, several employees filed suit against the sheriff for the city of Hampton, Virginia, after he fired them for “liking” an image of his rival candidate. The Fourth Circuit court held that clicking a “like” button on Facebook is protected free speech and therefore the sheriff had violated the constitutional rights of the six employees he had fired.
In this case in Indiana, Facebook messages were sent between two teenage boys, M.T.V. and B.E., regarding their conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. During a fact-finding hearing, these messages were brought forward as evidence by the state, but M.T.V. objected on the grounds that the messages were not authenticated and were inadmissible hearsay.
M.T.V. appealed to the court, stating these messages should not be allowed as evidence. However, it was pointed out that M.T.V. had prior conversations with law enforcement about his intent to “shoot up the school.” He disclosed to law enforcement that they would find a conversation with B.E. demonstrating their intent and therefore the messages were admissible. In this case, adjudicated delinquency was upheld for M.T.V.
These cases demonstrate the importance of being aware of social media evidence and using caution in engaging on these platforms. We should be mindful of what we post, as well as expect that anything posted could be discoverable in a court of law.
Social media discovery happens during the preparation of the trial when both parties share their relevant evidence and identify the witnesses who will testify. Private social media can be discoverable regardless if it is ultimately admissible at trial.
We usually post information on social media in the spur of the moment. At the same time, that information is relatively permanent and easy to find by most people. It would be unsettling to know that people could see any spontaneous thing you did in life, and yet social media is not far from that.
The courts are trying to protect our privacy, but they also understand the importance of acknowledging a party’s digital footprint when considering the evidence. Consequently, social media evidence in civil cases is now a focal point for discovery in court.
It is important to remember that our actions on social media can have serious legal ramifications, so it’s best to be mindful of what we post online.
Social media’s role in the courts is expanding, and we all know it. While it’s always a good idea to be careful what you say online, it is especially important when you’re involved in an ongoing case.
Even though elevated stress is normal when you’re planning for trial, the original intentions of a post may lose its meaning in front of a judge. So, if you are involved in a car accident, for example, avoid talking about your case, especially on social platforms.
When it comes to the admissibility of social media evidence, it will usually be added if it meets certain rules and regulations. The content must be proven to be authentic, relevant, and retrieved properly.
With the advent of social media in the courts, lawyers’ responsibilities have increased. Your personal injury attorney must understand when they can use social media to your advantage in court and how to protect you from damaging your case. It’s an attorney’s ethical obligation to understand the impact of the “technology” on their case. For example, you might be asked to change privacy or security settings while the case is open. Attorneys must also be able to build relevance for social media evidence and authenticate it.
As long as you’re aware of the information you post and take measures to protect yourself, your social media evidence could make or break your case. It’s important to know what kind of evidence is allowed and how it will be used so that you can prepare accordingly.
You deserve experts to help you navigate the legal process, especially after an accident. Social media can have a significant impact on your personal injury case. The experienced attorneys at Tuley Law Office in Evansville will provide guidance on every aspect of your case including social media discovery.
Contact our legal team of personal injury lawyers today.