ABC wins appeal over hidden camera investigation of medical lab

Privacy | Feature | September 24, 2002

    NMU         NINTH CIRCUIT         Privacy         Sep 24, 2002    

ABC wins appeal over hidden camera investigation of medical lab

  • An appeals court dismissed privacy and trespassing claims against the network, saying public interest outweighed privacy concerns.

A federal appeals court panel found Sept. 20 that a PrimeTime Live hidden camera investigation into medical laboratory errors was not an invasion of privacy under Arizona law. The panel upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against ABC, Inc. by one of the subjects of that investigation.

Medical Laboratory Management Consultants, a testing lab in Arizona, sued ABC over a story that aired on PrimeTime Live in 1994. The segment, "Rush to Read," focused on error rates among medical laboratories that analyze women's Pap smears for cancer.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) dismissed the lab's claims of trespassing and "intrusion upon seclusion," a form of privacy claim. A person is liable for "intrusion upon seclusion" if he or she intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, into the private affairs of another, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The court said the obvious public importance of the story outweighed any privacy interests the lab or its employees could claim.

The story was prompted by the death of a Rhode Island school teacher after four of her Pap smears were misread by four different laboratories.

To report the story, two producers and a cameraman from ABC went undercover to examine the inner workings of medical labs. One producer posed as a health clinic worker and arranged to have several hundred Pap smear tests processed over a weekend at Medical Laboratory Management Consultants. Another producer, in order to gain a meeting inside the lab, said that she was a cytotechnologist (a technician trained to identify cell abnormalities) from Georgia who wanted to set up her own laboratory.

The producer claiming to be a scientist entered the lab with another ABC journalist and the cameraman, who filmed the inside of the lab with a camera hidden in his wig.

The resulting story uncovered evidence of rushed lab work and missed cancer diagnoses, according to court papers. ABC won a Peabody Award and an Emmy for the piece. Corrective action was taken as a result of the report.

The court said that the public interest in such a story was significant: "There can be no doubt that information about a medical issue with potential life and death consequences affecting millions of women is plainly of public concern."

In contrast, the lab and its workers did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, the court said. The undercover journalists filmed in the lab portion of Medical Laboratory's offices, which was open to the public. They also were escorted by the lab's owner into a conference room.

The owner and the other lab workers encountered by the journalists had no reason to expect their dealings with strangers to be confidential, the court said. The owner's discussion with the journalists was not of a personal nature, nor did he request that anything he said be kept confidential.

Moreover, the court said: "Privacy is personal to individuals" and corporations cannot make legal claims for invasion of privacy.

With respect to the trespassing claim, the court said the company failed to prove it had suffered any damages as a result of the alleged trespassing.

The court also threw out a claim that ABC interfered with the lab's business opportunities.

ABC's attorney, Andrew D. Hurwitz, called this a significant win for the news media. He said that the threat of "intrusion" claims is a significant issue for journalists who want to do undercover work. The Ninth Circuit decision makes clear that where such journalism involves a matter of public interest and does not intrude on individuals' rights, privacy claims will not succeed against the media.

(Medical Laboratory Management Consultants v. ABC, Inc.; Media counsel: Andrew D. Hurwitz and Diane M. Johnson, Osborn Maledon, P.A., Phoenix, Ariz.) -- WT


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