Credit Crunch - Attacking the credibility of plaintiff pays dividends
Reitano v Shearer & Anor  QSC 44
This is a Supreme Court of Queensland decision involving a plaintiff who was injured when the vehicle she was driving was hit from behind by a four wheel drive. The case illustrates the advantages in attacking a plaintiff’s credibility from a number of angles (including social media).
On 18 January 2008 the plaintiff was stationary behind a line of vehicles at a roundabout when her vehicle was struck from behind by a four wheel drive and propelled forward at least 5 metres. The plaintiff alleged that she sustained significant injuries in the incident, including a thoracic prolapse, chronic musculo-ligamentous strain to the thoracic and lumbar spines, chronic adjustment disorder and pain disorder.
Liability was admitted and the issue for determination at trial was quantum.
The Decision at Trial
The majority of the plaintiff’s evidence-in-chief regarding her injuries and the effect they had on her life and employment was provided by a signed written statement. The plaintiff stated she experienced constant thoracolumbar pain, burning pain and back spasms which sometimes induced vomiting. She had difficulty returning to work, social activities and gym, broke up with her boyfriend and avoided socialising with friends. She had gained weight and alleged she was no longer able to pursue her intended career as a foreign correspondent journalist due to the injuries.
During the trial comments and images posted by the plaintiff on social media were considered.
It was revealed during cross-examination that the plaintiff had attended music festivals, hotel events and had been involved in an “on/off” relationship since the incident. She had created what North J described as a “false persona” on social media sites, with references to a trip to the United Kingdom, job offers and an offer on a house, none of which were true.
The plaintiff also admitted that her mother provided a letter significantly exaggerating the extent of work duties she performed at her mother’s business to obtain admission to the Masters course she was undertaking.
Further, in the plaintiff’s application for admission to university, journalism was her stated third preference and she had “blogged” during her school years that she in fact wished to become a psychologist.
North J found that the plaintiff had a disdainful regard for the truth and when confronted with the evidence regarding her “false persona” she was described as having “no concern for suggestions that her evidence was inaccurate or even perhaps untruthful and she laughed”. Ultimately, His Honour could not accept the plaintiff’s self-reporting of pain and suffering following the incident and the extent to which this had affected her life.
North J noted that the expert opinion from medical specialists relied upon by the plaintiff was mainly based on her reporting and accordingly he was unable to accept the opinions of the plaintiff’s orthopaedic surgeon, neurosurgeon and psychiatrist.
North J awarded judgment for the plaintiff in the sum of $139,026.
This decision confirms the potentially significant evidentiary weight given to information and/documentation obtained from social media sites. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are popular sites which people use to report their involvement in recreational, social and work activities and, if allowed by the user, any information on these sites is open to the public domain. Matters in issue in an injury claim may be contradicted on a person’s social media page.
Having said that the attack on the plaintiff’s credibility also came from other non-social medial sources. The combined weight of all of the evidence was sufficient for North J not to believe the plaintiff or accept her evidence (and as a consequence the evidence of her experts) in many important respects.