I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: sometimes, words have legal consequences. You can commit serious legal wrongs (fraud, defamation, solicitation, conspiracy, etc.) using words alone. Furthermore, speaking without thinking can hurt your legal position in other ways, inadvertently defeating an essential element of a claim or defense in a civil case.
I should also note, again, that these legal consequences apply whether you say something in the real world, or on the Internet. And since anything you say on the Internet generally has the potential to reach far more people than something said in the physical world, you should generally be more guarded about what you say online. But, for whatever reason, most people seem to do the opposite – typing out the first thing that pops into their heads, for the world to see.
Today brings yet another case (also seen here) of somebody saying something online, and negatively affecting their legal situation. Though this one is a bit more amusing than most. This case involved a divorcee who was awarded $850 per month in spousal support, partly because she claimed she was unable to work, due to a back injury.
However, the court found out that she was very fond of belly dancing, which, from my limited experience, looks like it would be pretty physically taxing – not exactly something for people who can’t work (even as a legal secretary, which is what our friend did before all this) due to a back injury.
So, how did the court find out that she had recently taken up belly dancing? Why, her blog, of course!
She made posts about how she “swirled around,” “danced herself silly,” and the like. And, of course, either her ex-husband, his lawyer, or the judge found these posts (she must not have made much of an effort to remain anonymous online), and asked her to reconcile this with her claim that she suffered so much back pain that she couldn’t work as a legal secretary.
Rather than fessing up, she claimed that her activities were prescribed by her doctor, as a form of physical therapy. Her doctor was called in, and he testified that he had no idea she was belly dancing on the side. Good work!
In addition to denying her petition for an order of spousal support, the judge ordered her to pay her husband over $5,000 in attorney’s fees. Ouch. This is one of the more boneheaded examples of loose online talk getting people into some sort of legal trouble (or defeating a legal claim that they might have had).
However, it’s gotten to the point that people are so reliable in revealing personal information online, that many older “high-tech” investigative tactics are becoming obsolete.
For example, it’s still pretty common for insurance companies to hire private investigators to keep an eye on plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits against the insurance company’s policyholders. Just a few years ago, the most high-tech investigative technique they had at their disposal was surreptitious videotaping. They’d set up a hidden camera outside the plaintiff’s house, and look at what type of physical activities they’re engaged in. If they see the person working out, moving heavy objects, climbing on a ladder, playing sports in the front yard, etc., they can be pretty sure that his or her injuries are not as severe as they’re claiming.
Nowadays, however, they sometimes don’t even have to bother: the people they’re investigating will voluntarily post incriminating statements, photos, and videos on Facebook.
What is it about the Internet that it creates this massive blind spot in our discretion in sharing our personal information? I really don’t know. Perhaps it’s the illusion of anonymity. Perhaps it’s the fact that everyone else is cavalier with their personal information online.
In any case, we’ve known for years that this type of carelessness can get us into trouble. Yet, it seems that most people have to learn the hard way just how much damage it can do in real life.
One would think that, the more time we spend online, the more we’d start treating it as we treat real life – you know, thinking about what we say, and what information we share. But it seems that just the opposite has happened: we’ve completely lost any expectation of privacy. Or, if we expect to remain private online, we do next to nothing to protect that privacy, and are for some reason surprised when people find out things about us that we might not want them to know.
I have no idea how to change this. And I think it’s a pretty serious concern. With the Internet, our whole attitude towards privacy is changing, and the long-term effects this could have on society are impossible to predict.
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