Facebook posts were key to successful defense

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires

DETROIT - Just as social media touches many aspects of life, it plays an increasingly significant role in litigation.

But even when online evidence surfaces that seemingly makes or breaks a case, lawyers still strive to dig deeper.

The defense prevailed in an Eaton County case, Trina Newman and Thomas Newman v. Michael Seibold, et al, where one of the plaintiffs who sued over injuries in a car accident reportedly posted Facebook photos of herself participating in stock car racing after the crash.

While the photos clearly boosted the defense argument that her post-accident lifestyle was not significantly affected, further verification was sought through surveillance.

"Since many of the social media posts are static pictures, we wanted to see if we could capture any video demonstrating Ms. Newman getting into and out of her car or any other video that would debunk her claims that the accident affected her general ability to lead her normal life," said the defendant's attorney David M. Nelson of Willingham & Coté PC in East Lansing. "Typically, social media is the tip of the iceberg and surveillance is often useful as a follow-up tool."

Summary disposition was granted in Seibold's favor by Judge John D. Maurer.

The case

Thomas Newman was driving his truck on Jan. 10, 2014, heading northbound on Lansing Road with his wife Trina in the passenger seat. A vehicle driven by Michael Seibold struck Thomas' vehicle on the driver's side, resulting in significant damage, according to a Verdicts & Settlements report submitted by Nelson to Michigan Lawyers Weekly. The defendant did not contest liability.

Trina went to Sparrow Hospital the next day complaining of knee, back and hand pain. Tests showed some degenerative disc bulging, but no acute injuries, according to the report. After leaving the hospital, Trina reportedly posted on Facebook that she had only minor injuries.

"Defense counsel uncovered Facebook photographs of Trina engaging in stock car racing following the accident and surveillance was performed which also revealed her racing activities," Nelson's report stated. "Defendant argued that there was no objective evidence of any impairment and that in light of the Facebook photographs/posts and surveillance, the accident did not affect her post-accident lifestyle in an appreciable manner."

Plaintiffs argued that Trina's bulging discs created a fact question sufficient to deny summary disposition. Defendant countered that there was no objective evidence linking the bulges to the accident.

The trial court ruled that Trina's claims were barred by the tort threshold.

Thomas complained of back pain at the hospital a day after the crash, but tests only revealed degenerative findings, according to the report. He later complained of headaches, neck pain and ear pain. An ear, nose and throat physician testified that his ear complaints were likely not accident-related, the report stated.

Plaintiffs argued that there was a question of fact that precluded summary disposition, but the trial court dismissed Thomas' claims.

Social media

as evidence

Nelson said many of Trina's complaints "involved claims of back and neck pain and that she was unable to perform the same activities and hobbies she performed before the accident."

"The Facebook pictures and posts debunked this theory by showing that she continued to engage in stock car racing on a regular basis," he said. "Additionally, one of her posts on the day after the accident was that she was fine and only suffered some bumps and bruises, which contradicted her claim that she sustained serious injuries in the crash.

"Typically in these types of cases we like to check the plaintiff's social media profiles because they typically show the plaintiff engaging in activities which they claim they are unable to do."

Nelson believes uncovering the Facebook posts was the key to successfully defending against Trina's claims.

As for Thomas' claims, Nelson pointed to "obtaining his social security disability transcript regarding his pre-accident limitations and successful cross-examination of his treating ENT physician regarding the cause of his ear complaints."

Plaintiff's attorney Shawn C. Cabot did not respond to requests for comment.

Published: Mon, Jun 12, 2017