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Paparazzi-like behavior by a California school district

In 1998, following Princess Di’s death while being chased by paparazzi, we were all outraged about intrusive tabloid journalism ” one of my pet peeves.

Never missing an opportunity to pander, the California Legislature adopted a law that imposes liability for an invasion of privacy with the intent to capture a visual image, sound recording or other physical impression of someone (like a movie star) engaging in a personal or familial activity.

The law provides for treble damages and disgorgement of profits by the paparazzi. Good law.



So is the column today about a high-profile celebrity, maybe Angelina Jolie, suing an aggressive photographer? Something really juicy? Nope.

Klare Richardson-Tunnell was a teacher at Lucia Mar Unified School District in San Luis Obispo County. Richardson-Tunnell suffered a back injury at work and underwent disc replacement surgery. She filed in a worker’s compensation claim.



Four months later she was married while on disability leave.

District offiicals and their worker’s comp carrier were dubious of Richardson-Tunnell’s claim, so they hired Eye-Con Investigations (I like the name) to surreptitiously attend and videotape her wedding, the reception and even the honeymoon.

This could get interesting folks. But it doesn’t.

So Eye-Con’s photographer misrepresented himself as an invited guest and videotaped the wedding ceremony and reception. He used a telephoto lens to videotape the newlyweds while they sunbathed on the second floor balcony of their rented room at the Cliffs Resort.

They were then videotaped as they left the hotel driving through Cambria. And that’s it, nothing to write home about. Remember this is a school district not professional paparazzi. And a family newspaper.

Richardson-Tunnell discovered what Eye-Con had done and sued for a violation of her right to privacy seeking treble damages as well as punitive damages to punish the district and its insurance company.

The trial court ruled in favor of the district and its carrier, finding they were immune from liability because the district is a governmental entity.

Under California law, a public entity is not liable for any injury unless a state law expressly subjects it to liability. I wish I had that immunity protection. And as it turns out, a public employee and its employer, like a school district, is immune from liability for “instituting or prosecuting judicial or administrative proceedings.”

So the first question for the Court of Appeal was whether Eye-Con’s snooping amounted to “instituting administrative proceedings.” If so the district is immune from liability.

The Court of Appeal found that Eye-Con’s investigation was an essential step to instituting an administrative proceeding involving a worker’s comp claim. Richardson-Tunnell loses.

The second question faced by the Court of Appeal was which law prevails ” the paparazzi law imposing liability for Eye-Con’s paparazzi-style intrusive invasions of privacy or the government tort claim immunity protecting the district.

The Court had no trouble finding that the paparazzi law fell in the face of governmental immunity. In fact, the California paparazzi law contains a specific exemption that it does not apply to governmental agencies like police departments and school districts.

Richardson-Tunnell fails in her suit for money damages against the district.

Apparently she was not videotaped doing back-breaking activities that would have jeopardized her worker’s comp claim, so her disability claim survived.

Remind me not to file a comp claim in the Lucia Mar School District. They play hardball.


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