On January 7, 2015, the Florida State Court of Appeals for the Fourth District ruled that Florida citizens only have a “minimal” expectation of privacy in their social media accounts, even if the accounts are set to their maximum privacy settings. Although the underlying case pertained to a personal injury lawsuit, the ruling of the Florida Court affects all forms of civil and criminal litigation throughout the State, and may also impact invasion of privacy claims asserted against media defendants.
Social Media Accounts at Issue
The lawsuit involved a personal injury claim filed by a customer of Target Corporation (“Target”), who alleged that she slipped and fell in one of Target’s stores. The plaintiff claimed that she suffered serious and permanent injuries and sued Target for lost earnings and diminution of her ability to enjoy life. In conducting research related to the case, Target’s counsel viewed the plaintiff’s Facebook account, and although her privacy settings blocked the attorney’s ability to view her pictures, he was able to discern that she had posted over 1,200 pictures following her injuries. Target served discovery demands seeking to inspect the plaintiff’s Facebook page. The plaintiff objected to the production request, arguing that because the privacy settings of her Facebook page prevented the general public from having access to her account, the Florida State Constitution protected her account from being subject to inspection by Target.
Court Rules Social Media Accounts are Discoverable
The Court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments, holding that “the photographs posted on a social networking site are neither privileged nor protected by any right of privacy, regardless of any privacy settings that the user may have established.” The Court noted that Facebook itself does not guarantee the privacy of any user’s account. Quoting a New York federal judge, the Court reasoned that because third-party “friends” of a user can access the plaintiff’s Facebook page, they have the ability to copy and recirculate any picture posted on the plaintiff’s page, thus destroying any expectation of privacy claim. Accordingly, the plaintiff was compelled to turn over photographs from her social media account.
Impact of the Ruling
In reaching its decision, the Florida Court stated that photographs posted on social media accounts “are the equivalent of a ‘day in the life’ slide show,” and thus offer compelling evidence in civil proceedings. The Court further noted that social media sites provide a virtual “treasure trove” of information in litigation. As a result of this ruling, parties to lawsuits in Florida will have the ability to probe a litigant’s social media accounts for information that may be useful in litigation.