Jim Porter: CHP officers e-mail grotesque photos of traffic accident
February 18, 2010
and#8220;It is a sad day, to be sure, when those upon whom we rely to protect and serve do the opposite, and make the decapitated corpse of a teenage girl the subject of international gossip and disrespect, and inflict devastating emotional harm on the parents and siblings of that girl. The CHP should know better. Every one of its officers should know better. The CHP is in a position to ensure that this does not happen again.and#8221;
So wrote the Court of Appeals last week.
Nicole Catsouras, age 18, was decapitated in a tragic automobile accident. CHP officers Thomas O’Donnell and Aaron Reich took photographs at the scene which were transmitted to CHP computers. Then, as hard as it is to even imagine that this occurred, Nicole’s family’s lawsuit alleges that on Halloween, O’Donnell and Reich e-mailed and#8220;graphic and horrific photographsand#8221; of Catsouras to members of the public who were not involved in the official investigation.
More than 2,500 websites posted the photographs, and lots of and#8220;craziesand#8221; e-mailed copies of the photos and mean-spirited e-mails to the Catsouras family, all of which caused severe emotional distress.
Nicole Catsouras’ family sued Officers O’Donnell and Reich and the CHP for negligence, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy, among other claims. Based on the allegations in the lawsuit, the trial court ruled in favor of the officers and the CHP. The family appealed.
The Court of Appeals noted that in California, surviving family members generally have no right of privacy when the media discusses the life of a decedent. Any privacy claim dies with the decedent. However, in a lengthy opinion, the Court of Appeals concluded that family members themselves have a privacy right in the death images of a decedent, at least with facts as egregious as those alleged in the Catsouras family lawsuit.
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The Court also found that the CHP officers owed a duty to use the death images exclusively for the purposes of the accident investigation and to protect the family’s privacy from foreseeable harm by not spreading the sensational images across the Internet.
The Court discussed federal and state immunities ultimately concluding that e-mailed photographs sent to persons unrelated to the accident investigation certainly were not transmitted in furtherance of the investigation and therefore immune acts.
The Court of Appeals overturned the trial court ruling and#8212; the family’s claims established absence of any legitimate public interest in the details the officers revealed in the photographs. The family’s privacy was invaded by publication of private facts.
CHP officers are charged with protecting the public, and we have learned to trust and appreciate their service. That an officer would intentionally e-mail such lurid photographs, such that they became a malignant firestorm across the country is so shocking that I question whether it really happened. However, the Catsouras family pleadings claim it happened and those allegations are initially accepted as true, allowing the family to proceed to trial, where they will present their evidence.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe, Incline Village and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Fair Political Practices Commission and McPherson Commission, both involving election law and the Political Reform Act. He may be reached at email@example.com or at the firm’s web site http://www.portersimon.com.