In Court, Must a “Private” Facebook Page Stay Private?
In a recent Nova Scotia case called Conrod v. Caverley, the court considered an evidentiary question of modern-day importance: Can a court order a plaintiff to disclose his or her “private” Facebook page?
The plaintiff had sued the defendant in connection with a motor vehicle collision, claiming that the injuries she suffered had left her with severe neck, back, arm and leg pain. Since the accident she had been unable to return to work; she claimed a loss of enjoyment of life, including an inability to fully participate in social and recreational activities. She also complained of impaired concentration, which affected her ability to spend time surfing the internet.
In response to these claims, the defendant went to court to ask for an order requiring the plaintiff to produce a full, printed copy of her Facebook profile, including the information and photographs that – due to her privacy settings – were only visible to her “friends”. He also asked for a printed copy of her Facebook usage history, including her login/logout information. He claimed that this information was relevant to her damages claim relating to loss of enjoyment of life, as well as her complaint that she could not concentrate or participate socially to the extent she had done before the accident.
In making its decision, the court relied heavily on two prior Ontario cases in which the same issue was raised, also in connection with motor vehicle accidents.
In Leduc v. Roman, the defence had asked for an order allowing it to see the plaintiff’s entire Facebook profile, including the information and photographs that had been set as private. Ultimately, the court declined, finding that it was merely speculative that – given the nature of Facebook – the contents of a “typical” private Facebook profile would likely include material relevant to the litigation. Rather (and as with all types of evidence), the plaintiff could be cross-examined in the usual fashion on what potentially-relevant content might be contained there.
In making this ruling, the court in Leduc relied on the reasoning in an earlier similar decision, Murphy v. Perger, which also involved a request for access to the private portion of a plaintiff’s Facebook profile. In that case, the judge had outlined the following principles governing Facebook information sought to be used in accident litigation:
• It is reasonable for a court to infer that, given its social-networking nature, Facebook contains some content that is relevant to the issue of how the injured plaintiff has been able to lead his or her life since the accident.
• Where the party sets their entire profile to “private” (so that the public page consists only of name and possibly photo), then a court can infer – given the social networking purpose of Facebook – that users make personal information available and photos available to others.
• Where a party to litigation has both a “private” and “public” profile, it is also reasonable to infer that the content of both profiles will likely be similar. In the right circumstances, a court is therefore entitled to order that the private profile be produced.
Returning to the Nova Scotia case, the court applied those principles to the facts at hand: Looking specifically at the plaintiff’s public Facebook page, the court declined to jump to the conclusion that it necessarily contained information relevant to her litigation claim. Nor could it conclude based on that same publicly-accessible information that the contents of her private page would likely be relevant and should be ordered produced.
On the other hand, the court did order that the plaintiff’s log of internet usage with respect to her Facebook account be produced; that information was directly relevant to her claim that the accident injuries had affected her ability to concentrate, and was therefore relevant.
For the full text of the decision, see:
Leduc v. Roman,  O.J. No. 681; 2009 CanLII 6838 (S.C.J.)
Murphy v. Perger,  O.J. No. 5511 (S.C.J.)
At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders. For more information, visit us at www.RussellAlexander.com