MONTREAL – The case of a Montreal writer who said his insurance company refused to pay him disability benefits due in part to online postings is a reminder to people to watch what they put on the Internet, according to legal experts.
Literature professor Samuel Archibald published a letter in La Presse earlier this month detailing his struggles to get disability benefits after being diagnosed with severe depression last fall.
He wrote that while he was on leave from his job at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, the school’s group insurer opened an investigation because he had been able to take part in certain activities such as speaking with students, reading poems on the radio and making a 10-minute TV appearance. They also looked at photos he had posted on social media that showed him jogging or playing with his children.
“They also used this new trick of peeling through the insured’s Facebook and Instagram pages in order to prove, in the event of a lawsuit, that he is not depressed,” he wrote on Feb. 12.
The article prompted a wave of denunciations from doctors, union leaders and citizens, with some sharing their own stories of being denied claims with the hashtag #avecsam.
It also elicited a response from Archibald’s insurance company, which defended its commitment to mental health and promised to review his file.
“Close to half of our group insurance claims are disability cases, and less than five per cent of mental health claims are declined,” Desjardins wrote in a statement. “It’s important to note that each claim is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, while consulting with the insured, experts – including the attending physicians – and the employer.”
But the story is no surprise to legal experts, who say insurance companies are increasingly turning to social media to investigate claims.
David Share, a lawyer who specializes in insurance claims, says insurance companies have always conducted surveillance and been suspicious of certain kinds of disability claims.
He says that while firms have a responsibility to ensure claims are valid, social media can also offer “a cheaper, quicker way of trying to find grounds to deny a claim.”
As an example, he says insurance companies can argue that someone who spends a certain number of hours online is capable of working a desk job or taking calls. “It’s easy to say ‘this person doesn’t look disabled,’ but that’s an overly simplistic way of looking at it,” he said.
Robert Currie, a lawyer and member of Dalhousie University’s law and technology institute, says insurance companies are too often allowed to be invasive and to jump to conclusions that aren’t supported by their evidence.
“You can’t judge anything meaningful about someone’s mental health based on their social media feeds,” said Currie. “One thing we know is that social media feeds are extremely unreliable indicators of anything about a person, 95 per cent of the time.”
Both Share and Currie say that while the issue of social media monitoring raises privacy concerns, thus far there are few government regulations in place to stop it.
“The legal system is still trying to catch up with the Internet and the impact that it has, and it’s very difficult to prevent companies or investigators from being able to learn how to look things up online,” Share said.
Currie said that while people can have some legal recourse if they can show that companies breached strong privacy barriers, it’s far easier and less costly to assume that anything posted online can be found.
“A colleague has a sign on her office that reads: ‘Dance like nobody is watching; email as if it’s going to be read to a deposition some day,”’ he said. “I think people are far too casual about this.”