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Michigan Personal Injury Lawyers and Accident Victims Should Use Caution with Social Networking Web Sites

January 22, 2009 by Steven M. Gursten

Top Mistakes Accident Victims Make: No. 1

The best way to avoid mistakes in a lawsuit is excellent communication with your personal injury attorney. There are so many confusing laws that can trap the unsuspecting and wreck havoc on a Michigan automobile accident case, even when people are trying to be truthful, honest and do the right thing. The best advice remains the simplest: Call your accident attorney if you have a question, and certainly before doing something that can have a major impact on your personal injury case, like filing an application for social security disability, not understanding why an injured person cannot file for unemployment or posting misleading photos of yourself on the Internet.

Because these innocent mistakes play such a crucial role in hurting good people with deserving cases, our auto accident attorneys will be writing a series of blogs on how to properly protect a client so an insurance company defense lawyer doesn’t destroy legitimate cases. The purpose of the series is not to help people who are being dishonest or trying to scam the system. It’s to prevent honest people from making innocent mistakes that insurance companies and defense lawyers can subsequently exploit to avoid responsibility for damages they owe and have caused.

To begin the series on client mistakes and insurance company traps in Michigan personal injury cases, I’d like to discuss keeping tabs on the accident victim’s Internet activity. Defense lawyers hired by insurance companies are looking at what accident victims are posting on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Classmates.com and LinkedIn.

For example, our attorneys have seen clients who are disabled with closed-head injuries or a herniated disc from a truck accident posting pictures of themselves skiing or hiking. These pictures are completely innocent, and were taken before someone was ever injured in an accident. But it’s the allegation of fraud that can be fatal. Good defense lawyers live by the adage of, “Let’s throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.” The accusation of fraud can be enough for suspicious jurors who are ready to assume the worst about a person, especially after being exposed to 30 years of insurance company propaganda on insurance abuse.

To prevent such a situation, I advise clients to avoid using MySpace and Facebook. If this activity cannot be avoided, please be cognizant of what you post and think about how it can be used against you in a personal injury lawsuit. A client also should have his attorney review all of his or her accounts and even keep tabs on the friends’ social networking sites to make sure they’re not posting messages or images that would be unflattering to a group of strangers. Remember, defense lawyers can learn what your loved ones are saying and posting about you as well, especially if they’re asked to testify.

Advice for Michigan Lawyers

Take 10 minutes and Google your client. In one of my car accident cases, my client suffered severe personal injuries. But a few days before mediation and unbeknown to me, he created a Web site offering dog grooming services, which nearly destroyed his case. The Web site was created for his wife’s business, and intended for after the case resolved. But the plaintiff’s name was on it and the defense lawyer accused him of working and being far less disabled then he truly was.

With that, it’s not only the defense attorney’s job to poke holes in our clients’ cases. Good personal injury lawyers find the red flags and address issues before cases are destroyed.

Always Tell the Truth in Your Car Accident Case

At the beginning of each case, I make it a point to stress to the client to always tell the truth. Many clients hide information, such as a prior drunk driving arrest or poor school grades, because they are embarrassed. Just understand that in this world of computers and social security numbers, everything can be discovered.

Real trial advocacy in automobile accident cases essentially boils down to a plaintiff being credible and likable. Because jurors want to do the right thing, they need to believe something is true in order to be motivated to help. And as a lawyer, I don’t want to help someone who isn’t telling the truth.

Our attorneys tell our clients that if there’s any basis of truth to a question being asked, admit it. There is no reason why a client cannot disclose something, and then explain the circumstances behind it. Remember, many things can be kept out of court as irrelevant and unduly prejudicial — as long as you admit to them and testify truthfully. So if you have questions, ask. It’s far better to discuss a concern with your lawyer before filing suit than to it is to be exposed in front of a jury.

One last thought on social networking: one of my lawyer friends told me he’s had three cases where use of social networking sites by the defense has discredited the plaintiffs. He assumes defense attorneys are doing searches on every plaintiff, regardless of the nature of the case. You should too.

It’s time to offer some protection for the unwary.

— Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, by Brandon King

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