Could you be under surveillance right now? If you're involved in a personal injury claim with a potentially large settlement, you very well could be. Learn more about how insurance companies try to use video surveillance to dismantle personal injury claims (and what you can do to prevent that).

How is surveillance video used?

A private investigator may follow you for weeks or months, filming you from the moment that you step out of your door and trailing around behind you anywhere that you go in public. As long as you're in public (including your own yard), such surveillance is usually legal. 

One purpose of the video is to try to catch you doing something that makes it seem like you aren't as disabled or injured as you say you are. For example, if you say that you can't lift anything over 10lbs, the investigator might hope to catch you carrying groceries into the house or shoveling snow.

Another purpose of video surveillance is to try to impeach your testimony. In many states, surveillance doesn't have to be turned over until after depositions are given. A deposition requires you to answer questions about your condition under oath. The insurance company's attorneys may purposefully ask you questions about certain activities hoping that you'll exaggerate your condition.

Finally, some insurance companies use videotape surveillance to show to medical experts that are hired to provide an opinion about your case. The expert can only base his or her opinion on what is shown — and there's no rule saying the insurance company has to show the expert the entire video taken. A carefully edited selection of moments culled from months of surveillance could easily mislead an expert into believing that your injuries aren't that severe.

For example, a video that shows you walking easily down your steps and out to get the mail could be shown to the expert, complete with video of you bending over to pick up a dropped letter. There's nothing requiring the insurance company to show the expert witness the remainder of the video, which might show you stopping to rest at the bottom of your porch steps, your hand on your back, your expression showing your pain. 

How can you combat the problem?

First, be conscious of the fact that you could be on camera at any point if you are at work or in public, from the moment that you step out of your door until you're back home again. By remaining conscious of how something might look on camera, you're less likely to give the insurance company anything to use.

Keep in mind that you can also be videotaped even in the waiting room of your doctor's office. Insurance company investigators are not above such actions. You could also be confronted directly by an investigator, who may be trying to goad you into some action or admission that would put you in a bad light.

Always refuse to talk to an investigator who attempts any type of "field interview" with you and contact your attorney immediately. Never allow someone who is investigating you into your home and try to avoid allowing him or her to even see inside your home.

The reason that this is important is that the investigator will be looking for anything that could be used to convince the court that your disability isn't severe. Is your living room clean and neat? That could mean that you're capable of doing the cleaning. Is there folded laundry in view? The insurance company may say that your shoulder and back injury must not be that bad if you're still getting the laundry done.

Be especially vigilant around certain times when video surveillance is most common:

  • Holidays and birthdays. Investigators hope to catch you celebrating and looking happy and healthy.
  • Weekends. You might be most inclined to push yourself harder, run errands, or participate in a family outing on weekends.
  • Times you've been accustomed to activity. Imagine that you used to go to the gym every morning before you got hurt. Investigators are likely to watch in the mornings to see if you are trying to resume your old habits.
  • Nearing depositions. If you are scheduled to give a deposition, the insurance company may step up its efforts to get you on tape.

Eventually, videotape surveillance has to be turned over and your attorney will get a chance to see all of it, not just the carefully edited portions. At that point, your attorney can determine if the tape is really a problem or just a minor annoyance. For more about this topic, consider talking to your attorney right away.