Social Media Research Leads to Summary Judgment Victory
(May 2022) - Cleveland Partner Joseph Fiorello recently obtained a summary disposition (Michigan refers to summary judgment as summary disposition) victory for an insured motor carrier and driver in Monroe County, Michigan. The summary disposition motion was spearheaded by social media research of the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s family members who were identified in the plaintiff’s discovery responses.
The case involved a motor vehicle collision that occurred in the express lanes of I-75 in Monroe County, Michigan. A prior accident had already occurred on the same section of highway, due to the snowy conditions, prior to the defendant truck driver being involved in a second accident. As the insured truck driver approached the scene of the prior accident, he observed police cruisers were occupying the middle and right lanes of the three-lane highway. Thus, he decided to exit the middle lane, which he was occupying, and move into the left lane. Shortly after entering the left lane, his tractor trailer was rear-ended by the plaintiff’s pickup truck. The plaintiff’s complaint alleged the truck driver sharply swerved into the left lane and immediately jammed on his brakes, resulting in the collision that totaled the plaintiff’s pickup truck.
Notably, Michigan is a no-fault state in terms of motor vehicle accidents. Under Michigan’s no-fault law, an automobile accident victim has the right to recover “no-fault benefits,” which are typically paid by the injured party’s own insurance company, regardless of who caused the accident, so long as the injured party’s vehicle was registered in the State of Michigan. If the vehicle is not registered in the State of Michigan, and not required to be registered, the plaintiff would collect his damages from the at-fault party. For example, if an Ohio resident drove to Detroit to watch the Cleveland Browns beat the Detroit Lions and was injured in a motor vehicle accident in Michigan, the Browns’ fan would collect damages from the at-fault driver’s insurance company. However, the failure to obtain Michigan no-fault insurance, when it is required, bars a plaintiff from recovering against an at-fault party.
According to the plaintiff’s complaint, the plaintiff was a California resident who was only in Michigan to visit his daughter at the time of the crash. The plaintiff’s vehicle was registered in California; thus, he claimed he was entitled to seek damages from the defendants. The plaintiff’s discovery responses listed his daughter, by name, as a potential witness with knowledge of the injuries that the plaintiff had suffered in the accident.
We researched the plaintiff’s social media accounts, but found nothing relevant. We continued the social media search by reviewing the plaintiff’s daughter’s social media profile, and found a Facebook page the daughter regularly posted on. Notably, she posted the details of the accident on the date of the accident. The post detailed that a truck driver almost killed her father with his reckless driving. A review of the comments to that post revealed a comment that provided “at least your father is living in Michigan now so you can take care of him.” Further review of the daughter’s Facebook page showed the daughter with the plaintiff on several occasions in Michigan in the months leading up to the accident. This information was relevant as out-of-state residents are not required to register their vehicle under Michigan’s no-fault law, unless they and their vehicle are operated in the State of Michigan for more than 30 days in a calendar year. If a non-resident operates their vehicle in Michigan for more than 30 days, they must obtain no-fault insurance to seek recovery from an at-fault driver.
The plaintiff was clearly aware of this requirement, as the plaintiff claimed that he was “visiting” his daughter and had been in the State of Michigan, with his vehicle, for less than 30 days prior to the accident. The plaintiff testified that he decided to become a resident of Michigan after the accident due to the injuries he sustained and his inability to care for himself as a result of said injuries.
We had digital proof, via the daughter’s Facebook page, prior to the plaintiff’s deposition, that the plaintiff was staying in Michigan for several months prior to the accident. Therefore, we needed to establish that both the plaintiff and his vehicle were in Michigan for more than 30 days before the accident. The plaintiff testified that he drove his pickup truck from California to Michigan, and that he drove his pickup in Michigan while he was “visiting” his daughter. Further, he admitted he had never stepped foot in Michigan before making this cross-country drive to visit his daughter. The plaintiff went on to state he never drove back to California between the time he first came to visit his daughter and the date of the accident.
During the plaintiff’s deposition, he testified that hunting was one of the activities he had to give up due to the injuries he suffered in the accident. We had already saved a photograph from the daughter’s Facebook page showing the plaintiff hunting in Michigan months before the accident. We did not show the plaintiff the photograph or imply we knew of him residing in Michigan for months prior to the accident, as we did not want to provide the plaintiff an opportunity to clarify his testimony and claim he had been to Michigan on multiple occasions – none of which were longer than 30 days. Instead, we had him testify that his daughter is an extremely honest person and that we could trust the testimony she would provide during her deposition.
We then deposed the daughter and had her verify the authenticity of her Facebook page. She further testified that the photographs showing her father hunting, doing drywall repair, visiting the Henry Ford Museum, etc. all occurred while her father was staying with her at her residence in Michigan. We had her testify that each of these above-referenced events occurred in a separate month, showing that the plaintiff was staying with her for months prior to the accident.
We filed our motion for summary disposition on the basis that the plaintiff was in the State of Michigan operating his pickup truck for more than 30 days, without obtaining mandatory Michigan no-fault insurance, prior to the accident. We attached the deposition transcripts of the plaintiff and his daughter, with the Facebook postings and photographs as exhibits. The court held the testimony of the plaintiff and his daughter, “along with the Facebook photos,” established that the plaintiff, even if deemed a non-resident, was in Michigan and operating his vehicle for more than 30 days prior to the accident. Therefore, he was barred from any recovery and the court granted our motion.