Legal Implications of Digital Footprints in Personal Injury Cases

by Jon R. on April 17, 2013

At 11:49 pm on April 2, 2013, online magazine Gawker posted a video on their website of a violent mugging that occurred in a Brooklyn subway station on March 9, 2013. The video, released by police earlier that day, showed a woman in a stairwell being attacked and robbed. Viewers of the video watch in helpless horror as a young man punches and kicks the woman. While the woman is on the ground, he dumps her purse, rifles through the contents, kicks her again for good measure, and then we finally witness her running for safety.

By noon on April 3, 2013, 21-year old Aidan Folan was arrested by the New York City Police Department for the crime committed in that video. His arrest occurred within 12 hours of Gawker posting the video and is an amazing example of the power of social networking. Just one person with the online ID “secretsout” found a Facebook web address that consisted of the same phrase that was emblazoned on the back of the mugger’s Alpha Phi Delta hoodie. This Facebook profile belonged to Aidan Folan and showed photos of Aidan wearing that same hoodie on the evening of the attack and in the days following the attack – a solicitor’s dream. Additionally, his Facebook profile provided the name of his employer, profile pages of his friends, and links to places he frequented; in other words, everything the police would need in order to track him down.

Granted, this alleged criminal probably isn’t a candidate for Mensa, but even the most intelligent among us generally aren’t in the habit of considering repercussions that can come from our online activities, otherwise known as our digital footprint.

The legal implications of digital footprints aren’t limited to tracking down criminals. Social network account details are now a standard defense discovery request in civil litigation. Plaintiffs claiming injuries have posted photos of themselves dancing, running, lifting, and otherwise engaging in or admitting to participating in activities that their complaints maintain they’re incapable of performing. Relationships between witnesses and plaintiffs have been exposed via diligent digging, and when it comes family law, Facebook can prove more valuable than a $200/hour private investigator. Social networking provides an opportunity for people to tell the world about themselves, and in the process, tell on themselves to anyone paying attention.

Digital footprints encompass more than social networking profiles. If someone uses his or her email address to sign up for sites like Huffington Post, blogs, or the local newspaper’s website, a simple Google search could identify anything posted on public pages by any ID associated with that email address. For example, a client might have posted a seemingly innocuous comment, such as, “Enjoyed the kayak trip. Let’s do it again soon,” on a event. Defense counsel searching that email address in Google could potentially locate that comment. Now your client has just told defense counsel, and the world, that he or she has been kayaking and, depending on your client’s injury, this could seriously damage his or her case. Email accounts, including passwords, have also become a standard defense discovery request in civil litigation.

Suffice to say that social networking and other online interactions can be a tremendous asset or a serious liability for South Carolina injury attorneys and those throughout the nation, depending on your practice. Advising clients of the potential that their online activity might be scrutinized is certainly practical in this digital age.

Jon Rivers is a legal marketing specialist and researcher dedicated to educating the public about the various issues associated with personal injuries and the law firms who help victims get justice. Find Jon Rivers on Google+

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