SUNBURY — Weis Markets’ attorneys can use Facebook posts to poke holes in a worker’s claim that he suffered embarrassment and lost wages because of a workplace accident, a Northumberland County judge has ruled.
In a seven-page ruling some say will impact other court decisions, Judge Charles H. Saylor rejected Williamsport defense attorney Douglas Engelman’s assertion that the privacy of his client, Rane Zimmerman, of Florida, outweighed the Weis Markets’ right to view evidence on the Internet.
Zimmerman had filed a lawsuit seeking damages as the result of an April 21, 2008, injury to his left leg while he was operating a forklift at the Weis warehouse in Milton. Zimmerman was employed there by a subcontractor.
He claims the leg injury has left him in pain, unable to “enjoy life and life’s pleasures” or wear shorts because of an embarrassing scar.
But pictures Zimmerman posted on the public portion of his Facebook page show him wearing shorts that reveal the leg scar and riding a motorcycle, and Weis attorneys Stephen Geduldig and Stephanie Hersperger, of Harrisburg, filed a motion to gain access to his private Facebook postings.
Saylor rejected Engelman’s privacy argument because Zimmerman had made his physical condition an issue.
“Zimmerman voluntarily posted all the pictures and information on his Facebook and MySpace sites... and he cannot now claim he possesses any reasonable expectation of privacy to prevent Weis Markets from access,” Saylor wrote. “With the initiation of litigation to seek a monetary award based upon limitations or harm to one’s person, any relevant, nonprivileged information about one’s life that is shared with others and can be gleaned by defendants from the Internet is fair game in today’s society.”
Though the ruling affects only Northumberland County, Geduldig said he expects it to have a longer reach.
“Judge Saylor gave a thoughtful, well-reasoned, scholarly analysis of the issue, and we believe other courts will give it weight,” Geduldig said.
Engelman did not return a call for comment.
Geduldig said late Monday morning that he had received passwords, user names and log-in names for Zimmerman’s Facebook and MySpace pages, as ordered by the judge.
There is no case law regarding privacy issues and social networking sites and few published opinions on the matter, said Jessica Harlow, Saylor’s law clerk.
In his decision granting the motion by Weis Markets, Saylor cited two 2010 opinions issued in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, and Suffolk County, New York, as well as a conflicting order issued earlier this month in Bucks County.
Saylor’s opinion has already begun garnering attention in legal circles, including an article today in The Legal Intelligencer, the oldest daily law journal in the country.
Timothy Conboy, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, said the issue surrounding social media is a hot topic among attorneys. Some view a blanket ruling allowing access to private sites equivalent to turning over a personal diary, he said.
“There is no question that until our appellate courts rule, we’ll see a lot more conflicting opinions on this in lower courts across the state,” Conboy said.