Recently, a private school in Miami called the Gulliver Preparatory School decided not to renew the contract of its 69-year-old headmaster, Patrick Snay. Patrick sued the school for age discrimination.
The school settled the case by agreeing to pay Patrick $80,000. As part of the deal, Patrick signed a “confidentiality agreement.” This was a written contract saying that Patrick wouldn’t tell anyone the details of the settlement other than his wife and his lawyers.
Not long afterward, however, Patrick’s college-age daughter Dana wrote on Facebook that “Ma and Pa Snay won the case against Gulliver,” and bragged, “Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer.”
The post went out to more than 1,000 of Dana’s Facebook friends, including a number of Gulliver students and graduates.
The message eventually made its way back to school officials. The school claimed that Dana’s post was evidence that Patrick had violated the confidentiality agreement, and it refused to pay the $80,000.
The result? A Florida appeals court ruled that since Patrick had told his daughter about the settlement, he had violated the contract, and the school could keep all the money.
The case is an illustration of just one of the many ways that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can cause problems for people who bring lawsuits.
Insurance companies now routinely monitor the social media accounts of people who bring injury claims, looking for information that they can use in court. Often, even perfectly innocent posts or comments online can be twisted or manipulated by an insurance company in ways that can make obtaining fair compensation more difficult.
Take the case of Bill McMillen, a racecar driver in Pennsylvania who was hurt when another driver rear-ended him during a 2007 stock-car race. Opposing lawyers looked up McMillen’s public Facebook page and discovered that he’d taken a fishing trip and traveled to the Daytona 500 after the collision occurred. They used this information to insinuate that he wasn’t as badly injured as he had claimed. Plus, based on the information, they persuaded a judge to order McMillen to provide access to the private areas of his page as well.
Another problem is that many injured people, when they’re having a hard time and are in significant pain, try to put on a brave face and project an image of strength in order to keep relatives and friends from worrying about them.
How can you protect yourself? The best advice may be to simply dismantle your social media accounts while you have an injury claim pending. But of course, many people find this very hard to do.
You should also keep close tabs on what your friends are posting about you. Facebook allows friends to “tag” you when they post a picture with you in it, so everybody knows it’s you in the photo. Make sure to set your security features so that no photo can be “tagged” without your prior approval. And by all means, ask friends to take down any comments mentioning your name that could be misinterpreted so as to put your case at risk.
Finally, never accept friend requests from people you don’t know well and trust. These could actually be from insurance companies trying to spy on you.