People use social media sites like Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook to represent themselves online. People post pictures of themselves and their friends, write status updates of their daily activities and connect with their friends. Social media allows people to reflect their day to day lives virtually, online. If courtroom testimony analyzes the lives of individuals, is information from social media sites discoverable? Not in this case, ordered a judge from the Bucks County Common Pleas Court.
In Piccolo v. Paterson, Piccolo filed suit against Paterson after she was injured as a passenger in Paterson’s car. In the accident, “Piccolo was hit in the face with an airbag and suffered lacerations to her lip and chin,” according to this article from The Legal Intelligencer about the suit. During a deposition, Piccolo was asked if she would agree to a “neutral friend request” so that the defense could view her Facebook profile, as it was only accessible to her “friends,” not the public. The defense stated that “…access to Piccolo’s Facebook page would provide necessary and relevant information related to the claims by Piccolo.”
Piccolo’s attorney, Benjamin G. Lipman denied the request on the grounds that the defense had only asked for photographic evidence, not textual postings. He continued that he had already provided the defense with “as complete a photographic record of the pre-accident and post-accident condition [as she] could reasonably have a right to expect in this case” since, following the accident, an insurer visited Piccolo and took photographs of her face. Lipman continued, “[Paterson] has not asserted that there is likely to be any text in the non-public postings that is material or will likely lead to the discovery of material evidence.” Judge Albert J. Cepparulo denied the defendant access to Piccolo’s Facebook page, citing “privacy concerns.” Had the request for information been more specific to include text as well as photographic evidence, perhaps Cepparulo would have decided differently.
Individuals who think their privacy is safeguarded online should still be leery, according to Eric Sinrod, a partner at Duane Morris who writes for Technologist. Sinrod also references Piccolo v. Paterson, but warns that had Piccolo not already produced photographic evidence, the judge may have decided differently. He advises, “…it behooves people who believe that they may have a lawsuit coming their way to be careful about what they make available on…social media sites.”
As the line between real life and the virtual world is blurred, so too is the divide between private and public lives, making social media profiles a difficult issue for courtrooms. In the coming years, we will see many cases involving social media information and Cepparulo’s decision will be added to a growing number of records relating to the discoverability of social media profiles. Perhaps more individuals should take Sinrod’s advice when he states,“People are getting use to living out loud online, and perhaps a little quiet would not be such a bad thing.”