Originally Published July 17, 2012
An Allegheny County judge has denied cross-motions from parties seeking to discover information on the Facebook profiles of the two people involved in a fatal automobile collision, ruling that the plaintiff's request did not argue how the information would be relevant to a punitive damages claim, and that the defense motion relied on Facebook fodder that was not inconsistent with the plaintiff's claims.
Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled that discovery into a person's profile, when that party is not "friends" with his or her opponent, is unreasonably intrusive under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 4011(b), which bars discovery that causes "unreasonable annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, burden or expense to the deponent or any person or party."
However, Wettick noted that most Facebook discovery would probably fall at a "level of 2" on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of intrusiveness, because the party resisting the discovery has already made the information available, in most cases, to a number of his or her "friends."
Still, the relatively minimal intrusiveness was enough for the judge under the circumstances in Trail v. Lesko.
"In this case, I denied the discovery requests of both parties because the intrusions that such discovery would cause were not offset by any showing that the discovery would assist the requesting party in presenting its case," Wettick said.
Wettick noted the developing standard in Pennsylvania courts that information from a party's public profile serves as a "gateway" to his or her entire profile, but it was not at the crux of his line of reasoning.
The bulk of his 20-page opinion serves as an introduction to Facebook and a detailed review of the Pennsylvania trial courts that have either decided on Facebook discovery with commentary, or cases that have been detailed in press reports.
Wettick said the requests for Facebook discovery have been frequently coming in over the past year, but added he usually decides on them from the bench. Both parties usually agree with that method, he said.
With the July 3 opinion, the ruling brings the Law Weekly's scorecard to 6-4 in favor of trial courts denying discovery motions. No appellate court has decided on the Facebook discovery issue in Pennsylvania and the nine trial court decisions Wettick cited and described have been reported on by the Law Weekly.
He also detailed opinions from other jurisdictions, which have in some cases enlisted a different standard than courts in this state.