Advances in technology such as smartphones – BlackBerry, iPhone, Droid, etc. – have changed the way we communicate. This communication revolution has not only changed the way we interact with other people, it has also changed the way lawsuits are conducted.
When there was a maritime collision or oil spill in the past, the information exchanged was almost always in the form of paper documents. Prosecutors would demand logbooks, training and shipyard records, and spill contingency plans. Mariner attorneys would demand transcripts of statements, chain of custody forms for alcohol samples, copies of reports and photographs. Today, there is a new body of electronic information available.
This new generation of information exchange falls under what is known as “e-discovery.” In e-discovery, attorneys can demand information beyond the traditional box loads of paper documents. This new information could come in the form of emails, email logs, electronic logs from navigational and meteorological equipment, electronic logs for machinery, text messages, instant messages, images, audio files, employee communications on social network sites, employee Internet searches, Word and Excel files and computer hard drives.
Although electronic technology allows us to always be in touch, it also means that people can be incriminated by the trail of transmissions from their smartphones and laptops. An email in which a mate tells the home office that the radar on the bridge hadn’t been working for 10 days could become admissible. A text from a yard superintendent urging a port engineer to approve changing air starter motors during an overhaul could also become admissible.
You might say, “Why would anyone email something like that?” But today, emails and other communications have become second nature to many people. Emails or text messages are quicker than phone calls, and sometimes people want an indelible trail of their communications. Whether such an electronic trail might protect or hurt them if something goes wrong can depend upon how things are argued in court.