Judge Rules Deleting Facebook Photos is Tampering with Evidence
“Spoliation of evidence" is a legal phrase describing the deliberate destruction of evidence that would impact a trial. Although spoliation of evidence is a rare finding in civil cases, it was the finding of a state district judge in Virginia, who imposed fines totaling $522,000 on attorney Matthew Murray. Murray’s client was also fined $180,000 for acting on his lawyer’s advice to break the law. The case, Lester v. Allied Concrete Co., was a wrongful death suit filed on behalf of a bereaved husband.
The court found that Murray grew concerned that pictures Lester had posted on his Facebook account contradicted the pair’s claims in their case. The case was ultimately decided in Lester’s favor and $10 million in damages was awarded to him by a jury.
The deleted photographs came to light when an attorney for the defense managed to view Lester’s Facebook page through a mutual friend’s account. The page contained pictures that presented Lester engaged in various activities. Murray became concerned that some of these photographs, including one of Lester holding a beer and wearing a T-shirt proclaiming his admiration for “hot moms,” might cast doubt on Lester’s claim to be distraught over the loss of his wife. He advised Lester to remove the pictures.
Allied Concrete’s attorney was able to establish in court that Lester deleted the pictures, and the defense was furnished copies of them before the trial. After the trial, the judge ruled that all emails that had been exchanged between Murray and Lester were not protected under attorney-client privilege laws and demanded copies of them.
As a result of the evidence contained in the photographs, the judge decided that Lester was dishonest about his depression and the treatment he was receiving for it. Based on the emails exchanged between Lester and Murray, Lester was also found to have lied to the court about the existence of his Facebook account, and then lied about his attempts to delete it and its contents. In addition, the judge determined that Murray’s actions amounted to spoliation of evidence, and further found that he had attempted to cover his tracks by submitting incomplete evidence and blaming the act on a paralegal. After the ruling, Murray resigned from his law firm.
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