- Dean Smith
How Often is Social Media Presence Utilized in a Court of Law?
It’s easy for us to tell you the importance of capturing social media activity in the claims process, because that is what we do every single day. But it is also beneficial to see the effects that social media has on cases in the litigation process. Several cases are highlighted below from Amanda Hess’ 2015 article titled, “Evidence of Life on Facebook” with the headline, “Appearing happy on social media may be used against you in a court of law” from www.slate.com. Each case has a different subject matter whether civil or criminal, and some are even older, but mostly all have the same result; Facebook and other social media activity has been used as ammunition to refute claims:
1. “In 2006, a Long Island high school teacher pleaded guilty to third-degree rape and endangering the welfare of a child. Danny Cuesta admitted to preying on a 15-year-old sophomore who attended the school where he taught Spanish. He lured her into a private school office to ‘make copies,’ took her to motels for sex, and posed as her personal ‘tutor’ as an excuse to visit her at home. Cuesta’s victim—known in court filings as ‘Melissa’—spent four days on the stand; two other girls came forward to testify that the teacher had assaulted them, too. Cuesta was sentenced to 15 months in jail. Then, Melissa sued Cuesta, the school district, and school officials, seeking damages for, among other things, ‘repeated sexual injury and assault,’ ‘nightmares and sleep deprivation,’ ‘emotional distress,’ ‘alienation of affections,’ and ‘loss of enjoyment of life.’”
According to Hess, “Soon, lawyers for the school district started poking around Melissa’s Facebook feed. Melissa’s account was mostly locked to outsiders, but some pictures were visible: Melissa hanging out with her boyfriend, Melissa working at a veterinary hospital, Melissa rock climbing, Melissa out drinking with friends. They even found a second Facebook page, a joint account run by Melissa and her boyfriend. Melissa’s blithe Facebook activity didn’t exactly square with her contention, in a deposition, that she suffered from ‘serious trust issues with everyone’ and was ‘struggling’ in her relationship with her boyfriend. Nor did it support her claim of ‘loss of enjoyment of life,’ which one judge has defined as the loss of ‘watching one’s children grow, participating in recreational activities, and drinking in the many other pleasures that life has to offer.’ Rock climbing is a recreational activity; drinking with friends is one of life’s pleasures, after all. The court ordered Melissa to hand over every photograph, video, status update, and wall message ever posted on her Facebook accounts so that the school district may search for more clues that Melissa is secretly thriving.”
2. “Consider the case of Kathleen Romano, who was working at her desk at the Stony Brook University Medical Center in 2003 when her office chair collapsed. Romano sued the chair’s manufacturer, Steelcase, alleging that the chair had been defective and that its collapse caused her severe back injury, confined her largely to her home, and led to a loss of enjoyment of life. After clicking around Romano’s social media properties, Steelcase’s attorneys noticed that Romano’s Facebook profile photo showed her smiling—outside her home. And her MySpace postings were peppered with suspicious emoticons: smiley faces. ‘We figured something smells here,’ a Steelcase lawyer said later. ‘We wanted to see what else was in there.’ In 2010, the court granted Steelcase access to private corners of Romano’s social media presence to dig for more smiles; 12 years after the chair incident, Romano’s suit remains in litigation.” That was as of 2015.
3. “A former general manager of a Burbank, California, Home Depot sued the company for gender discrimination in 2011, claiming that she’d been wrongly fired and experienced anguish, anxiety, and isolation from friends as a result. So Home Depot dredged up dozens of posts on her Facebook wall from friends wishing her a happy birthday. Would a truly isolated woman get so many birthday wishes on Facebook? The case was settled out of court.”
4. “In 2004, a 19-year-old Connecticut woman lost control of her car while driving drunk and killed the friend sitting in her backseat; she served a year in prison, then got hauled back to court in 2009 for violating the terms of her parole. Facebook photos of the woman drinking beer at a Yankees game and partying at the Waldorf weren’t key to her second conviction, but the judge leaned on the images during sentencing. ‘Where is the remorse?’ he asked. ‘Every one of these pictures looks like you have forgotten about what happened.’ (He locked her up for three more years.)”
5. “In their murder case against Casey Anthony, Florida prosecutors proffered Facebook photos of Anthony smiling and dancing at a club following the ‘disappearance’ of her daughter, Caylee, a hint that Anthony’s state of mind at the time conformed to that of a killer, not a caretaker. (That one didn’t stick.)”
6. “Paul Nungesser sued Columbia University, accusing the school of being ‘an active supporter’ of a campuswide ‘harassment campaign’ against him by allowing Emma Sulkowicz, who has publicly accused him of raping her, to lug her dorm mattress around campus as a way to keep the allegations alive. Nungesser claims that he didn’t assault Sulkowicz, and in his suit produces flirty and friendly Facebook messages that his lawyers say demonstrate how ‘Emma’s yearning for Paul had become very intense’ and how ‘when Paul did not reciprocate these intense feelings … Emma became viciously angry.’ (Sulkowicz previously told Jezebel that she had strategically played nice in messages following the alleged assault in a bid to get Nungesser alone and confront him about the incident.)”
7. “In an early Canadian case where social media was offered as evidence of a plaintiff’s emotional state, Fotini Kourtesis sued a man who rear-ended her car as she drove to work in the winter of 2000. Kourtesis, who was 18 at the time of the crash, claimed the accident left her with chronic pain and a loss of enjoyment of life. She could no longer dance with her family like she used to, she said, or wrestle with her brother as she once did. When the court was shown Facebook pictures of Kourtesis dancing and being lifted into the air by her brother, post-accident, she testified that the triumphant scenes had been carefully posed for the camera. But the judge ruled that it didn’t matter whether the pictures were faked because ‘even if posed, the photographs were taken in an active social life setting’ and constitute evidence that Kourtesis ‘enjoys life.’”
Of course, not all cases turn out this way, as there are so many other factors taken into consideration. But for all intents and purposes, social media has become an extension of humans and how we live our lives, and it is certainly worthy evidence.