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FACEBOOK PHOTOS CAUSE LOSS OF MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR VERDICT

The use of social media is ubiquitous in our society.  One of the most common forms of social media is maintaining a personal profile account or page on Facebook.  The Facebook profile is a place where a person can connect with friends, post newsfeeds, thoughts, and photos.  If you share information or photos on your Facebook page, such information and photos become public and can be accessed by others unless you create privacy settings limiting who can see your posts. When you are a litigant in a lawsuit you must be careful as to the kinds of information and photos you post on your Facebook page as the other parties in the case and their attorneys may be able to gain access to this public information and use it against you. This is what happened to Christian Angeles whose postings of photos on his Facebook page showing him posing at a gym in workout garb and on a jet ski wearing a short wetsuit caused his multi-million-dollar jury verdict to be thrown out.  Angeles v. Nieves, 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1554 * (App. Div. decided June 28, 2018)

On December 6, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court refused to hear and thereby upheld the decision of the Appellate Division in Angeles which tossed out a three-million-dollar verdict (remitted by the trial court to $1.1 Million) obtained by Mr. Angeles following a trial in a motor vehicle personal injury case.  Mr. Angeles testified at trial that while he was operating his motor vehicle in an intersection his vehicle was negligently struck by a motor vehicle operated by defendant Nieves.   As a result of the motor vehicle accident, Mr. Angeles claimed he was caused to suffer low back disc injuries which significantly limited his ability to perform various daily activities of living.   During the trial the defense attorney attempted to cross-examine Mr. Angeles with the use of screenshots taken from Mr. Angeles’ Facebook profile depicting him at a gym posing in a “sleeveless shirt and sweatpants at a gym near exercise equipment, with a photo caption ‘In order to maintain the artistic action figure’”, and as well a screenshot of Mr. Angeles in a short wet suit sitting on a Waverunner with the caption “In water hesitating.”  Id. at *6-*7.  However, the trial judge refused to allow the defense attorney to cross-examine using the screenshots concluding that use of the photos would have been unduly prejudicial to Mr. Angeles’ claims. *7.   After the jury rendered its verdict of $3 Million dollars the judge on defendant’s motion reduced the verdict to $1.1million but denied defendant ‘s post-verdict motion for a new trial finding the screenshots potential for prejudicing the jury’s view of Mr. Angeles claims far outweighed their “limited probative value.”  *7.

In reversing the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion for a new trial, the appellate court found, among others, that the post-accident screenshot photos depicting Mr. Angeles engaged in apparent strenuous activity would have “substantial probative value.”  *9.   As the appellate court viewed it:

“Although the photos depicted plaintiff standing near the gym equipment and WaveRunner and sitting on a WaveRunner, rather than actually working out or riding the WaveRunner, the gym and WaveRunner photos showed plaintiff dressed to work out and to ride a WaveRunner, respectively. His attire, and the captions he gave the pictures, strongly support the inference he was engaged in those strenuous activities.”   *10.

As to the photos potential to negatively color the jury’s view of Mr. Angeles’ claims, the appellate court concluded that while that may prove true, the effect on the jury would not be unfairly prejudicial.  As the appellate court insightfully noted, “Even when evidence is ‘highly damaging’ to a [plaintiff’s] case, ‘this cannot by itself be a reason to exclude otherwise admissible and probative evidence.'” State v. Brockington, 439 N.J. Super. 311, 333 (App. Div. 2015) *12. “[T]he questions is not whether the challenged testimony will be prejudicial to the objecting party, ‘but whether it will be unfairly so.'” Griffin v. City of East Orange, 225 N.J. 400, 421 (2016)  (quoting Stigliano v. Connaught Lab., 140 N.J. 305, 317 (1995)). “We would ill-serve the cause of truth and justice if we were to exclude relevant and credible evidence only because it might help one side and adversely affect the other.” Id. *12.

The Angeles case should serve to caution litigants to be aware that what they say or post on social media sites, including their own Facebook pages, could in the future be used by their opponents in a lawsuit to a very damaging effect.

If you have been injured due to the fault of others, do not hesitate to call us at (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page.  Mashel Law located in Marlboro, New Jersey is dedicated to exclusively protecting the rights of individuals.