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Facebook Status = Spoliation for Deleted Account (NJ)

April 4, 2013

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In a recent decision in New Jersey federal court, <a href="http://www.technologylawsource.com/uploads/file/GattovUnitedAirLinesCaseNo10-cv-1090-DNJ.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Gatto v. United Airlines</a>, the Court ruled that the plaintiff's deletion of his Facebook account during the course of the lawsuit constituted spoliation of evidence.  Plaintiff, a baggage handler for JFK Airport, was injured when a set of airplane stairs crashed into him.  During the course of discovery the defendants sought social media information, asking specifically for records of plaintiff's Facebook activity.  Defendants requested that plaintiff sign authorizations allowing Facebook to release records of his personal activity but plaintiff refused.  Plaintiff was subsequently ordered by the Court to change his password to allow Facebook access to counsel.  Plaintiff deactivated and deleted his account before defense counsel was allowed access, claiming that he thought his account was being hacked, despite being aware that the defense was grated access.
Defendants moved for sanctions on the basis that the deletion was intentional and that the information contained in the account would have helped debunk plaintiff's claim.  Judge Mannion rejected plaintiff's argument that the deletion was accidental; reasoning that even if he did not intend to to deprive defendants of the Facebook data, he intentionally deactivated and deleted the account.  Judge Mannion sanctioned plaintiff for spoliation but did not grant defense attorney fees.
Prior cases have held that defendants may be entitled to social media access, and this case is notable because it takes things a step further by punishing a plaintiff for deleting such information.
Thanks to Remy Cahn for her contribution to this post.  If you would like further information, please write to <a href="mailto:mbono@wcmlaw.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Mike Bono</a>.

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