Have a lawsuit? Use Facebook with care

>2094-Summer-GP-LEMA-AA Page 1 Image 0001-262x300Recently, a private school in Miami called the Gulliver Preparatory School decided not to renew the contract of its 69-year-old headmaster, Patrick Snay. Patrick sued the school for age discrimination.

The school settled the case by agreeing to pay Patrick $80,000. As part of the deal, Patrick signed an agreement saying he wouldn’t tell anyone the details of the settlement other than his wife and his lawyers.

Not long afterward, however, Patrick’s college-age daughter Dana wrote on Facebook that “Ma and Pa Snay won the case against Gulliver,” and bragged, “Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer.” The post went out to more than 1,000 of Dana’s Facebook friends.

The comments eventually made their way back to school officials. The school claimed that Dana’s post was evidence that Patrick had violated the agreement, and it refused to pay the $80,000.

The result? A Florida appeals court ruled that since Patrick had told his daughter about the settlement, he had violated the contract, and the school could keep all the money.

The case is just one illustration of the many ways that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can cause problems for people who are involved in court proceedings.

Insurance companies and others often monitor the social media accounts of people who are involved in lawsuits, looking for information that they can use in court. Often, even perfectly innocent posts or comments online can be used (or sometimes, twisted or manipulated) in ways that can make obtaining a fair result more difficult.

Bill McMillen, a motorist in Pennsylvania, brought a lawsuit after another driver rear-ended him. Opposing lawyers looked up McMillen’s public Facebook page and discovered that he’d taken a fishing trip and attended an auto race after the collision occurred. They used this information to suggest that he wasn’t as badly injured as he had claimed. Plus, based on the information, they persuaded a judge to order McMillen to provide access to the private areas of his page as well.

Social media posts have been used as evidence in a number of divorce cases to suggest that a spouse was having an affair, was hiding assets, or wouldn’t make a good parent if given primary custody.

Personal injury cases can be especially tricky, because many people who have suffered an injury try to put on a brave face and project an image of strength in order to keep relatives and friends from worrying about them. They might post something on Facebook such as, “I was in an accident, but don’t worry about me; I’m doing fine.” Their intent is to keep a stiff upper lip and reassure their family and acquaintances, but an insurance company could use an innocent comment such as this to claim that they’re exaggerating an injury.

How can you protect yourself? The best advice may be to simply dismantle your social media accounts while you have a legal claim pending. But of course, many people find this very hard to do.

If you do maintain a social media presence, generally the best advice is to avoid discussing your lawsuit in any way at all.

You should also take down old pictures or status updates that could be misinterpreted. For instance, in personal injury cases, defense lawyers frequently try to claim that a person’s injuries pre-date their accident. If someone hurt their knee or their back in a car crash, and defense lawyers come across old posts in which they mention back or joint pain, the lawyers may try to use those posts to call the person’s new injuries into question.

You should also keep close tabs on what your friends are posting about you. Facebook allows friends to “tag” you when they post a picture with you in it, so everybody knows it’s you in the photo. Make sure to set your security features so that no photo can be “tagged” without your prior approval. And by all means, ask friends to take down any comments mentioning your name that could be misinterpreted.

Finally, never accept friend requests from people you don’t know well and trust. These could actually be attempts to spy on you.

If you have any questions, consult with your attorney to make sure you’re not using social media in a way that could compromise your right to a fair result in court.