A “trend” is generally defined as a general course, drift or prevailing tendency. In the battle between the potential privacy rights of a social networking site user and the desire of a lawsuit party to have full access to the private portions of that user’s profile, the trend favoring full and unfettered access has become clearer with a decision just issued by the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas in the case of McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway, Inc.
In McMillen, the plaintiff was injured during a stock car race, and sued for damages after being rear-ended during a cooling down lap. He alleged significant physical injuries and overall loss of general health and vitality, as well as an “inability to enjoy certain pleasures of life.” During the lawsuit, the defendants requested that plaintiff identify the name of all sites to which he belonged, and to identify his user name(s), login name(s), and passwords. Plaintiff responded by stating that he belonged to Facebook and MySpace, but he refused to give the other requested information based on confidentiality and privacy grounds.
After reviewing publicly-accessible portions of plaintiff’s sites to discover comments about a fishing trip and possible subsequent car race, the defendants filed a motion with the court to compel the production of the requested information. The court granted that motion and ordered the plaintiff to provide all of the requested user/login names and passwords.
Recognizing broad discovery rules, the court determined that any information and documents can be discoverable by another party as long as they are relevant to the case and not otherwise privileged. The court in McMillen refused to create a new privilege for social networking sites (none has previously existed), and further found that the private portions of plaintiff’s sites could be relevant to “impeach and contradict his disability and damages claims.” Specifically, the court noted:
“Millions of people join Facebook, MySpace, and other social network sites, and as various news accounts have attested, more than a few use those sites indiscreetly. . . . When they do and their indiscretions are pertinent to issues raised in a lawsuit in which they have been named, the search for truth should prevail to bring to light relevant information that may not otherwise have been known. Where there is an indication that a person’s social network sites contain information relevant to the prosecution or defense of a lawsuit, therefore, and given [the] admonition that the courts should allow litigants to utilize “all rational means for ascertaining the truth,” and the law’s general dispreference for the allowance of privileges, access to those sites should be freely granted.”
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development?
(1) As the trend will likely continue in favor of social media disclosure over privacy objections, you should continue to understand that nothing written or posted on blogs or other Internet sites will absolutely remain confidential and not subject to viewing by the public. Be vigilant in your policies and practices to make sure that social media-related statements or conduct of your managers and employees do not have the potential to expose your company to liability.
(2) You should understand that the McMillen case reflects the current sentiment toward open disclosure of social media sites generally, and not just for personal injury lawsuits. You should recognize, therefore, that social media can, and should, be a potential tool and valuable source of information in employment-related cases where an individual’s physical activities and emotional relationships are very often at issue.