Accident Evidence in the Social Media Era

When attempting to prove an auto accident claim or a claim for personal injury, a detailed recollection of the facts is often crucial to liability, as are witnesses and evidence used to support those recollections. Accident liability may turn on one driver’s story versus another, and an injury may be susceptible to multiple causes without further proof about what happened.  Increasingly, however, evidence related to accidents can be provided not by the parties to a dispute themselves, but from social media accounts of bystanders and third parties who may have recorded the accident as it occurred.  While this can be helpful for proving what actually happened, it can also raise important privacy implications for victims and their alleged perpetrators. Before anyone has a chance to determine the true story of what occurred, social media posts, Instagram pictures, and submissions to news sites may craft a biased depiction of an accident timeline, or alert the public to a significant injury or death before family has been notified.

In response to these difficult circumstances, Kentucky legislators have recently introduced what they believe to be a novel solution – a bill prohibiting bystanders from posting online about an accident or injury for at least an hour after the accident occurred if the post would contain identifying information about a victim or participant to the accident.

The bill, House Bill 170, was recently introduced by state representative John Carney.  The intended purpose behind the bill is to bring attention to issues of privacy, police investigation, and litigation when unregulated social media posts by third parties may have an effect on the individuals involved in an accident, or the ultimate outcome of an investigation or lawsuit. The prohibition would apply to anyone who witnessed an event that could reasonably lead to a serious physical injury, but it would exclude reporting by news media, emergency responders, or the victim him or herself.  Other individuals who posted social media reports within an hour of the event could be subjected to fines of anywhere between $20 and $100 per post.

While legislators claim that the bill is largely intended to provide protection to those involved in accidents or other circumstances leading to injury, and to ensure fair and accurate reporting of events, House Bill 170 has raised significant concerns because of the First Amendment restrictions it imposes, including preventing individuals from documenting and reporting on events that occur in the public domain.  While it may be insensitive to post pictures from a violent accident or serious crime, those critical of the bill have noted that any attempt to restrict individuals from documenting public activity for the public would likely constitute a prior restraint on free speech, a type of government action that is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Such restrictions could also affect the ability of parties to access information from third-party witnesses if such individuals are discouraged from sharing their pictures or videos as a result of the bill.

The bill remains before the House Judiciary Committee and has not yet been voted on.  While the ultimate outcome remains to be seen, the question of how to best deal with social media documentation and evidence in auto accident and personal injury cases remains unresolved.  While Tennessee residents may benefit from witnesses who can accurately report on events as they occurred, they also risk biased or inaccurate portrayals that may forever remain in the social media and public sphere and may have an impact on future investigations and litigation, both for better and for worse.

If you have been involved in an accident in which you believe that witnesses may have valuable information, video, or pictures that were posted to social media, or you are concerned about the impact of social media on your claims, automobile accident attorney Eric Beasley can assist you in addressing these difficult and confusing issues. For more information on what you can do to protect yourself and obtain the evidence that you need to present a compelling case for damages, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley at 615-859-2223 or online.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Lawmakers Encourage Automobile Safety Through Increased Seatbelt Fines, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 28, 2015.

Improving Driver Safety In Tennessee By Reducing Cell Phone Use, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 4, 2015.

Taking Legal Measures to Protect Auto Accident Victims, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 12, 2015