• Survivors can sue over distribution of death photos Thursday, February 11, 2010

    The surviving family members of a young woman who was killed and decapitated in an automobile accident have a right to seek damages against the California Highway Patrol officers who e-mailed photographs of the young woman’s mutilated corpse to their own family members.  Those photographs were forwarded to others and eventually popped up on approximately 2,500 websites.

    Nicole Catsouras, 18, was killed in a high-speed crash on October 31, 2006, after losing control of her father’s sports car. CHP officers investigating the accident took approximately 50 pictures of  Catsouras’ corpse. Two officers, Thomas O’Donnell and Aaron Reich,  e-mailed some of the “graphic and horrific” pictures to members of the public not involved in the official investigation. Family members of Catsouras brought actions for invasion of privacy and for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

    Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk dismissed the case, stating the CHP and its officers owed no duty to the surviving family members for an invasion of privacy. The trial court held the right to privacy regarding the distribution of the photographs applied only to the woman who was photographed, and that right expired when she died. The Catsouras family took the case to the 4th District Court of Appeal.

    In the appeals court opinion, Justice Eileen C. Moore focused on the officers’ duty to the surviving family members to respect their privacy. The court held that as a result of the officers’ negligence, the death images were placed on the internet in a “vulgar display,” and said it was foreseeable that those postings would cause emotional distress to the family members.

    “We rely upon the CHP to protect and to serve the public,” Moore wrote. “It is antithetical to that expectation for the CHP to inflict harm upon us by making the ravaged remains of our loved ones the subjects of Internet sensationalism.”

    In reversing the Superior Court’s ruling, the Court of Appeal held that the Catsouras family’s actions for invasion of privacy and negligence, for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for negligence should be allowed to go forward. The court also held that the Catsouras family should be allowed to argue in court that in this case Highway Patrol officers should not be granted immunity from prosecution as they normally would be for actions taken in furtherance of an official investigation. In this case the officers’ distribution of e-mails was unrelated to the investigation and not part of their official work.

    Catsouras v Department of the California Highway Patrol Court of Appeal Fourth District  Div 3  (G040330)

    –Steve Ingram

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