The next time you post something on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube or practically anywhere else on the Internet, keep in mind you’re leaving cyber crumbs behind.

The trail can become key evidence in a lawsuit, as purported bigamist John France of Westlake learned when his wife discovered he had married someone new after she saw wedding photos of France and Wife 2 on Facebook a few years ago.

Granted, the photos weren’t exactly discreet. The wedding ceremony had been at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with France dressed as Prince Charming and his new bride as Sleeping Beauty, surrounded by footmen.

While the France case may be over the top, gathering evidence from social media sites and other Internet sources has become quite routine in law practices. Family law, workers’ comp, trademark infringement and defamation litigation all lend themselves to sweeps of social media sites to bolster cases.

“The proverbial ‘smoking gun’ document of the pre-Internet era, which had given way to smoking gun email, has now given way to the smoking gun social media post,” attorneys Joshua Briones and Ana Tagvoryan write in “Social Media as Evidence,” newly published by the American Bar Association.

The authors point to the staggering growth of social media as tracked by Eighty percent of Americans who are online now regularly use some form of it. By the end of 2012, there were 200 million blogs worldwide, 901 million monthly active users of Facebook, more than 260 million users on Myspace, 160 million LinkedIn users, 340 million Tweets every 24 hours and 4 billion YouTube views per day, according to the Pew Research Center.

People will say things on social media sites that they would never say around the water cooler, said Tracy Johnson, an intellectual-property lawyer at Calfee Halter & Griswold in Cleveland.

“I think there’s a certain feeling of social anonymity,” Johnson said. “Also, I don’t think people really understand — certainly they don’t think about — the permanence of what they said or how they’re saying it. Sometimes it’s practically impossible to pull back an utterance online.”

An utterance or an image: Police in the recent conviction of Taunee Smith in the 2011 murder of DeJohn Dammons in Euclid used Facebook photos to identify Smith as present on the night of the shooting.

In an Arizona criminal case, prosecutors used the Myspace profile of Kirk Pressley Jr. to prove his Internet usage and alcohol consumption in violation of his probation. Pressley argued unsuccessfully on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting Myspace photographs.

On the civil side, litigants are checking social media sites as a standard part of due diligence for their clients. And insurance companies comb Facebook and Twitter accounts to assess the status of clients who file accident and personal injury claims.

Intellectual-property lawyer Philip Bautista at the Cleveland office of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, said lawyers there make regular anti-piracy checks of social media sites. They’re looking for trademark and copyright infringements on clients with large portfolios of brands, including the Hershey Co. and gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch, he said.

“You can look at a business’s Facebook page and determine when an opposing party has used the trademark at issue,” Bautista said.

Briones and Tagvoryan say blogs and even the comments posted on them have deepening legal reach.

Court clerks use blogs as a source for researching legal issues, in the same way they used law review comments in the past, they said. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently remarked that comments on law review articles come out too late to be of use to the court, so he finds his clerks reading blogs for insight on cases pending before the court.

Internet sites are not culled only for evidence to prove cases or impeach witnesses. Online posting itself can be the subject of a lawsuit, as a South Carolina woman found when Med Express of Medina sued her over a complaint she wrote on eBay.

The posting by Amy Nicholls of Greenville, S.C., was not extremely critical. She said the microscope she bought from medical equipment supplier Med Express arrived with $1.44 in postage due. She posted that information online and gave the company a low rating on eBay’s feedback forum.

Med Express admitted its shipping error, offered to reimburse Nicholls for the postage and asked her to take down her posting. When Nicholls refused to retract it, Med Express responded with a defamation lawsuit.

“We certainly admit that it arrived postage due,” said Med Express lawyer James Amodio, who said the postage problem apparently arose because of a weighing error with the package.

Amodio said Med Express insisted on a retraction because the company sells exclusively over eBay, where a sufficient level of negative feedback can increase the cost of sales as well as possibly drive away customers.

A hearing in the case is set for May 2.

Paul Levy, staff attorney for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, blogged about the case in the hopes of finding a pro bono attorney for the defendant. Public Citizen itself usually doesn’t take on cases such as Nicholls’, at least at the trial court level.

“There are so many defamation cases out there, we couldn’t defend everyone,” Levy said, “and it would only scratch the surface.”

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