A New Jersey judge ruled last month that deleting a Facebook account during trial constitutes spoliation of evidence. In Gatto v. United Airlines, 10-cv-1090, Magistrate Judge Steven Mannion ruled that in deleting his Facebook page, personal injury plaintiff Frank Gatto was deleting evidence. The plaintiff “had a duty to preserve his Facebook account at the time it was deactivated and deleted,” the judge said. New Jersey personal injury lawyers say that Gatto’s actions may have damaged his pending personal injury lawsuit.
Gatto, a baggage handler at John F. Kennedy Airport, filed a personal injury lawsuit against Allied Aviation Services and United Airlines in Middlesex County Superior Court, after a set of stairs used to refuel the aircrafts crashed into him in January of 2008. He claimed that he suffered severe injuries as a result, and is now permanently disabled, had to leave his job at JFK, and is limited in his range of physical activities.
The defendants sought social media discovery in July 2011, asking to review documents and records of any wall posts, comments, status updates, or photos that Gatto published to his profile on Facebook, as well as any other social media site, from the time of the accident to the present. They also requested to view any posts on Gatto’s eBay business from the same time frame. In November, Gatto signed forms authorizing MySpace, eBay, and PayPal to release his information to United, but denied them access to Facebook.
Gatto was ordered to release his Facebook information, and he changed his password to allow United access to the information. He later argued that the online access United had to his account allowed them to view unrelated, personal Facebook messages, which was a violation of his privacy. United agreed to access the information by contacting Facebook headquarters, but Gatto received notice that his account had been accessed by an unknown IP address. He deactivated his Facebook profile because he did not know who was accessing his information, and told the court that once an account has been deleted or deactivated, the page cannot be reactivated after a period of 14 days.
The defense claimed that Gatto intentionally deleted his account. They said that the information on the page would have shown that he participated in a range of activities, including trips and social occasions. Gatto also ran an eBay business, although his lawsuit claims that his injuries prevent him from earning a substantial income. Mannion ruled that the deletion did not appear to be intentionally fraudulent or diversionary, and would not cause a delay in trial.
The judge’s ruling is one of many precedents dealing with the prevalence of social media. Lawyers can now access Facebook profiles and other information published on the internet, and those profiles can be used as evidence. New Jersey personal injury attorneys warn plaintiffs that the things they post may contradict the claims they make in their lawsuits.
At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our personal injury lawyers represent people who are engaged in lawsuits for injuries caused by negligence.