Social media is the fastest-growing form of communication in the world: young people spend almost as much time browsing online as they do watching TV. It is estimated that nearly half of all Americans have a Facebook account; as of December 2012, Facebook had over a billion active users.
Lawyers and paralegals may use Facebook as a tool for investigation and research into a person’s life—but we must also be wary of the dangers it poses.
Allied Concrete Co. v. Lester
In 2011, nearly a year after lawyer Matthew Murray won Virginia’s largest known wrongful death award for his client, Murray lost more than $500,000 in sanctions — and his legal career. Murray’s client, Isaiah Lester, was awarded more than $10 million by a Charlottesville jury for the death of his wife, who was killed by a reckless driver. The driver lost control of his truck, which was carrying 36,000 pounds of cement, and crushed her car.
But within a year, the judge reduced the jury award by almost half and levied over $722,000 in sanctions against Murray and his client. The judge found they were responsible for spoliation of evidence from Lester’s Facebook profiles and withholding information from the court about their actions. Findings show that after Lester received a discovery request for his Facebook account, Murray had a paralegal email Lester telling him to “clean up” his Facebook to avoid any damaging evidence for the case —including pictures of himself socializing with friends after her death and wearing a T-shirt that said “I [heart] hot moms” while holding a beer in one hand.
Murray is to pay $542,000 of the total $722,000 fine — one of the largest sanctions in Virginia’s history. He also resigned from the law firm Allen & Allen as managing partner and an investigation commenced by the Virginia State Bar. Lester is to pay $180,000. Allied Concrete Co. v. Lester.
In a lawsuit? Avoid social media
If you are involved in a lawsuit or about to engage in one, do not post any information on Facebook. This includes your thoughts and rants on the litigation itself or your day-to-day happenings. The safest route is to deactivate your Facebook account. This also means not posting or blogging any personal information: once it is out there, someone with the right skills can find it. Don’t tweet, don’t blog, don’t Facebook, don’t Instagram.
There is little you can do on a social media site or online that will help you in your case (this goes into evidentiary issues), but there are definitely things you can do online that can harm your case — and your career as a lawyer. It’s just not worth it.