In litigation, social media has become a very hot issue. Many parties think they can obtain that final, critical piece of evidence from social media. One example is Facebook. Many employers involved in a lawsuit request the employee’s Facebook posts for a certain time period. The rationale is that a victim of discrimination cannot legitimately claim to be depressed if he posts pictures of himself drinking a cool one at the local pub. Or, some defendants will argue, if the plaintiff posts something about being upset with his family or pet dog, then the employer can use that post to argue he was upset about things other than being fired.
Isiah Lester was involved in a wreck when a truck owned by Allied Concrete Company swerved into his lane and inflicted multiple injuries to him. The collision killed his wife. Mr. Lester sued. Trial was held and Isiah Lester was awarded $6.2 million. His wife’s parents were awarded money, as well. Sometime after the collision but before trial, Mr. Lester posted a picture of himself on Facebook. In the picture, he is wearing a shirt saying, “I love hot moms” and drinking a beer.
Later, after trial, the defendant apparently learned about Mr. Lester’s Facebook account. The defendant, Allied Concrete Company, sued Mr. Lester and his lawyer for among other things, spoliation of evidence. The next day, the plaintiff’s lawyer told his paralegal to tell Mr. Lester to “clean up” his Facebook page. The paralegal emailed the Mr. Lester, asked him about the picture, and told him to delete other pictures. The plaintiff avoided producing any information about the Facebook account. At Mr. Lester’s deposition, he was evasive. Facebook was still new in 2010 and 2011. Perhaps, they thought they could get away with trying to hide the account.
When the defendant pressed for the Facebook postings, the lawyer at first claimed the Facebook account did not exist. Mr. Lester deleted the account. Later, he re-activated the account, but did delete the pictures. The defendant subpoenaed the Facebook account records and eventually obtained all the pictures. The lawyer did not list the email to his paralegal in the privilege log. It looked like he was trying to hide that email from the Defendant. But, in the end, it was also uncovered.
The defendant sought sanctions. The court found that the plaintiff’s lawyer had intentionally omitted his paralegal’s email from the privilege log. The lawyer tried to blame the omission on the paralegal. The court found the plaintiff:
- spoliated evidence by deleting his Facebook pictures,
- tried to mislead the defendant by deactivating his Facebook account, and
- lied in his deposition about deactivating his Facebook account.
The court sanctioned the plaintiff in the amount of $542,000 and his lawyer in the amount of $180,000. The award was tied to the defendant’s legal costs in pursing this information. The court referred the lawyer to the state bar for ethical violations. The court also referred the plaintiff to the prosecutor for his perjury in a civil matter.
This was the first case to sanction a party for trying to hide social media evidence. See the decision in Allied Concrete Co. v. Lester, 736 S.E.2d 699 (Va. 2013) here. The plaintiff and his lawyer went to a lot of trouble to hide the words of one t-shirt. It may well have turned out that he could have explained that t-shirt to the jury and assured them he was suffering emotionally when he drank that beer. Perhaps, that was his first social occasion since the accident. We will never know the full story. But, he and his lawyer made it much worse than it had to be.