Written by: Catherine R. Filippi
It’s widely reported how much information the internet, even public search engines, can tell others about us. With a few taps of a keyboard and the click of a button, you can see everything from an individual’s voter registration (in some states) to their grandmothers 2011 obituary, which outlines their entire families’ names and locations, sometimes spanning generations. This information is not just useful for the curious, though: it is imperative that attorneys are fully utilizing the information that’s publicly available to them, too. Particularly in litigation.
Consider the following scenario: you’ve been retained by an insurance company to defend a local restaurant. The manager of the restaurant says not only can he not remember the plaintiff falling, he can’t even remember the plaintiff being at his restaurant at all. As an early part of your investigation, you type the plaintiff’s name into Facebook. A public profile appears. You scroll down the plaintiff’s posts and you find a picture of the plaintiff at your insured’s restaurant, smiling with their young children, posted on the day the plaintiff claims she was injured. What have you learned from this little bit of investigation? A few things, both about the plaintiff and your insured:
- First, you have now confirmed that the plaintiff was at the restaurant on or near the time she claims she was injured;
- Second, you’ve got a picture of the plaintiff smiling and posing for a photograph at the restaurant she claims was negligent with no visible injuries; and
- Third, you’ve learned that your insured might not be the most reliable narrator. Perhaps you should be asking to speak to more to his staff, who might remember guests more clearly.
The importance of reviewing an opposing party’s public social media profiles and information available through Google cannot be overstated. In a day and age where we, quite literally, have a plethora of information in our pockets at all times, it would be irresponsible to not search the opposing party’s name. A popular trend on the social media website TikTok is for users to post “a day in my life” type of content. Imagine how useful it would be to watch “a day in the life” of a plaintiff, in their own words. However, in some cases, the inquiry should not end with the attorney.
The other side of the coin in having so much information is that, well, we have so much information. Determining what information is important in any given matter will always be the job of the attorney, but condensing that information into a palatable report? That is where hiring an outside private investigator may be worth the investment.
Between Google and social media, there can be hundreds of pages of information about one plaintiff. But, maybe, all you really need to know is how this plaintiff is doing in one respect or the other. Is the plaintiff who claims they can’t work due to a car accident with your client playing intramural soft ball? Is the plaintiff who claims that the incident they were involved in with your client is keeping them from living a full life going on a three-week Mediterranean cruise this summer? Is the plaintiff who claims the accident he witnessed gave him post traumatic stress disorder giving TED talks about moving past grief? While these are all, admittedly, extreme examples, they all describe information that you may want or need to know about a plaintiff that a private investigator could uncover for you. Perhaps this information only hurts the credibility of the plaintiff and paints a picture of them malingering. But, perhaps, the information takes you from a would-be six figure verdict to a defense verdict. Either way, I submit that the brief time you spent hiring the private investigator has paid off in a big way.
In conclusion, the duty to investigate claims on behalf of our clients has always been present, but that duty has evolved over time. At this point in time, with so much information so readily available, every attorney should make a cursory Google and social media check of the opposing party one of the first items on their “to-do” list when a new matter comes in. The time investment upfront can pay dividends later in the matter.