Facebook Spoliation Costs Widower and His Attorney $700K in Sanctions


The below article is from Abovethelaw.com by Christopher Danzig

In 2008, truck driver William Donald Sprouse pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter for the accidental death of 25-year-old Jessica Lester. According to a bluntly-written news article from the time of the trial, Sprouse’s “truck rounded a corner on two wheels, flipped and rolled over onto Lester’s car, a crushing sixty thousand pounds landing where Jessica sat.”

Jessica’s parents and her widower, Isaiah Lester, won a massive wrongful death suit in 2010 against Sprouse and his employer at the time of the accident, Allied Concrete Company. A Virginia jury awarded them a massive $10.6 million. Clearly, the family’s wounds were still fresh.

But the courtroom odyssey was not over.

On October 21 (nearly a year later), Judge Edward Hogshire signed a “final order” (PDF) cutting the jury verdict in half in Lester v. Allied Concrete Company and William Donald Sprouse, and penalizing Lester and his attorney, Matt Murray, a combined $722,000 in sanctions:

Whereas, the court, having reviewed the evidence and arguments of counsel and carefully considered the extensive pattern of deceptive and obstructionist conduct of Murray and Lester resulting in the sanction award, finds that most of the substantial fees and costs expended by Defendants were necessary and appropriate to address and defend against such conduct…

To read the entire article, click here.

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Spoliation of the Facebook Timeline


In a previous posting, I described the new feature in Facebook called “frictionless sharing”, a Facebook feature that will make sharing even easier by automatically sharing what you’re doing on a growing community of Facebook-connected apps. Potentially everything you do on the web could be shared on a timeline with your “friends” and any others (like attorneys) that get access to your page based, for example, on a Judge’s order for discoverable information.

The USA Today Tech section published an article titled “Facebook Timeline a new privacy test” a couple of days ago that got me thinking. From the USA Today article:

Up until now, Facebook accounts have focused on the most recent posts. With the new profile format, the most recent Facebook activities will be at the top. But as users go back in time, Timeline will summarize past posts — emphasizing the photos and status updates with the most “likes” or comments.

“A lot of people just don’t realize how much information they’ve shared in the past.”

This new timeline feature that takes much of what you have done on the internet and neatly organizes it into a timeline is a perfect target for eDiscovery. This brings up two questions; can you edit or hide items on your timeline and can you permanently delete data from your Facebook timeline? These two questions also highlight another question…if you edit your Facebook account and or remove something from your timeline, could that be considered spoliation in a legal proceeding?

Before I address the spoliation issue, let me address the first two questions.

1. Can you edit or hide items on your timeline? The answer is yes you can. From the Facebook help center:

How do I remove a story from my timeline?

You get to decide which stories appear on your timeline. Hover over a story on your timeline to see your options:

  • (Feature on Timeline): This allows you to highlight the stories you think are important. When you star a story, the story expands to widescreen. Starred stories are also always visible on your timeline.
  • (Edit): This gives you the option to:

  • Hide from Timeline: This removes stories from your timeline. Note that these stories will still show up in your activity log, which only you can see. They also may appear in your friend’s News Feeds.
  • Depending on the type of story (ex: status update, check-in, tagged photo), you may also have the option to:
  • Change the date of a story (ex: for an old photo, you can enter the date the photo was taken so it shows up in the right place on your timeline)
  • Delete a post (that you posted)
  • Report a post or mark it as spam (that someone else posted)

You’ll notice there isn’t a “delete” capability in the edit function.

2. Can you permanently delete timeline data from your Facebook account? As far as I can tell you can. In Facebook there is a feature called the “activity log” that is a record of all of your activity on Facebook. From the Facebook help center:

What is the activity log?

The activity log is a record of all of your activity on Facebook. So if you hide a story from your timeline, this story will still appear in your activity log. Your activity log is only visible to you. However, all of the stories in your activity log are eligible to appear on your timeline (unless you hide them from your timeline) or in your friend’s News Feeds.

The stories in your activity log are organized by the date they happened on Facebook. You can access your activity log by clicking the View Activity button on your timeline.

From the activity log you can:

  • Scroll through a history of all of your activity on Facebook
  • View and approve your pending posts
  • Filter the type of activity you see (ex: see all of your status updates or all of the links you’ve shared)
  • Choose which stories are featured on your timeline

You can also click the button to the right of each story. Depending on the story type (ex: status update, photo, app story), you may have the option to:

  • See the audience you shared
  • Delete posts
  • Report a post or mark it as spam
  • Change the date of a story
  • Remove an app from your account

So you can potentially delete items from your timeline… So this brings up my question on spoliation of the Facebook timeline; what, if anything, do organizations have to do to safeguard against altering the organization’s or employees personal Facebook timelines if pending litigation is foreseeable?

Obviously the Facebook timeline is potentially discoverable depending on the circumstances of the case. Organizations need to include the Facebook timeline in their litigation hold/eDiscovery process and to inform impacted employees of their responsibilities to protect potentially responsive information from within all of their personal accounts that could hold relevant ESI including the Facebook timeline data.

As a side note, it’s always a good practice to regularly remind employees not to mix business ESI with their personal accounts.