Internet Investigations for Effective Discovery
A few clicks of the computer can yield a treasure trove of information about a party or key witness.
The Internet contains a wealth of information about litigants that oftentimes the defendant or plaintiff has forgotten about or their counsel is oblivious to. The earlier you discover this information, the more you can utilize it in discovery.
Mining online information takes some creativity, time and effort. But an Internet inquiry can be well worth it.
Here are a few free sources to consider next time you are about to file a pleading or take the deposition of a key witness. Sometimes, just mentioning an obscure fact you found about the person you investigated online will be enough to elicit more truthful testimony.
A search engine, such as Google, Yahoo or Bing, is an obvious place to start since the search scours many different websites. Start broadly with the individual’s name and narrow it down as you go. The more unique the name or information that you’re looking for, the less narrowing you will have to do. Along with running searches of the name, include pertinent details such as an individual’s hometown, address, educational institutions, businesses or possible nicknames (e.g. Henry Ford and Edison Illuminating Company; Henry Ford and Crazy Henry).
Each of Google’s search tabs, including news, images and videos, will narrow the search to those mediums and may provide useful information, as well as additional search terms to apply. Finally, the search tools button narrows your searches by time, which is particularly helpful in the news section.
Special tricks will further narrow your search. For example:
- Use quotation marks to search for the exact phrase (e.g. “Ford Motor Company”);
- Use a dash before a word to eliminate results with that word or phrase (e.g. Ford –“Henry Ford”);
- Use two periods without spaces to see results that contain numbers in a range (e.g. Ford F150 1982..1992);
- Use an asterisk as a placeholder for an unknown term (e.g. * Motor Company);
- Use “OR” to find pages that might use one of several words (e.g. Ford OR F150).
Historical pictures of the building or area may dispute defendant’s claims regarding the property, building, condition, maintenance, security or use of the property. For example, historical street views of a property may dispute a defendant’s claim that the gates are always closed and locked.
Google Maps is a great resource for historical information about a location. Google’s Street View launched in 2007, providing panoramic views from the street and allowing you to look at historical images of those street scenes. This is particularly helpful if you’re dealing with a premises liability case because you can see what changes the landowner or business may have made through time.
The same tools can be used in Google Earth by looking at historical satellite images. Download Google Earth to your desktop, type in the address and click on the clock button with an arrow turning counterclockwise. This will reveal a bar allowing you to search through historical satellite images of the location. Be warned that the images are of varying quality.
For example, in a recent premises liability case, the defendant claimed a defective ramp existed when the defendant purchased the church in the 1970s. However, Google Earth pictures of a ramp revealed that the ramp was absent in satellite pictures before 2008.
These days, there is significant information about a person or place on social media and the platforms are changing constantly.
If a search through Google or a particular social media platform reveals a unique username, search the username on Google to find other platforms where that individual or company posts using the same username. For example, a person’s Facebook page sometimes has a personalized website address (e.g. https://www.facebook.com/[username]). Searching that username through Google may reveal the person’s activities on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Yelp, YouTube, etc.
Many businesses will have their own social media pages, but others may be linked to posts without their knowledge or consent. Keep an eye out for hashtags that identify the party you are researching or a “check in” at the business. Also look for customer comments or photographs on review sites, such as Yelp or TripAdvisor.
One thing to remember, depending on the source, the posts or images uncovered on the Internet themselves may not be admissible in court; however, the information may provoke useful testimony in deposition.
Alexandra Hamilton is a trial attorney at The Veen Firm, and focuses her practice on complex cases involving injuries and death arising from construction and worksite conditions, defective products, dangerous property conditions, negligent security, and collisions between cars, trucks, pedestrians and bicyclists.