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Accident victim taped in helicopter may sue for privacy invasion

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  1. Libel and Privacy
CALIFORNIA--The state Supreme Court in Sacramento in early June decided that two people injured in an auto accident could sue…

CALIFORNIA–The state Supreme Court in Sacramento in early June decided that two people injured in an auto accident could sue the producers of a show that broadcast portions of the rescue efforts for intrusion.

The court held that a jury would have to determine whether or not a cameraman for “On Scene: Emergency Response” intruded into a place where Ruth Shulman and her son Wayne had a reasonable expectation of privacy when he accompanied them on board a rescue helicopter. But the court decided that the Shulmans could not sue for intrusion based on videotaping at the scene of the accident because it occurred on public property beside a highway and the plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation that the media would be excluded from the scene.

A jury also will have to determine whether or not Ruth Shulman’s privacy had been invaded by the tape recording of discussions, both at the accident scene and on the rescue helicopter, between her and a nurse who was wearing a microphone provided by the show, the court held.

However, the court decided that the Shulmans could not sue “On Scene” for public disclosure of private facts. Because the auto accident and rescue were matters of legitimate public interest, the court held, the Shulmans could not reasonably expect that their involvement in such a newsworthy event would remain private.

Justice Ming Chin, joined by Justice Stanley Mosk, dissented from the court’s decision to allow the Shulmans to sue for intrusion. No reasonable jury could find that the cameraman’s conduct had been highly offensive, Chin wrote, because the “On Scene” cameraman merely recorded events of legitimate public concern rather than interfering with rescue efforts or attempting to elicit embarrassing information from the Shulmans.

“In short, to turn a jury loose on the defendants in this case is itself ‘highly offensive’ to me,” Chin wrote.

Justice Janice Brown, joined by Justice Marvin Baxter, dissented from the court’s holding that the Shulmans could not sue for public disclosure of private facts. Brown disagreed with the newsworthiness standard applied by the court and argued that a jury should have been allowed to determine whether or not the broadcast material was newsworthy enough to justify the alleged invasion of the Shulmans’ privacy.

A trial court in Los Angeles had dismissed the Shulmans’ entire lawsuit against the producers, and a state appellate court in Los Angeles reversed the lower court’s decision on both the intrusion and private facts claims. (Shulman v. Group W Productions, Inc.; Media Counsel: Kelli Sager, Los Angeles)