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Appeals court throws out nearly $20 million jury award against Hustler Magazine

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A federal court of appeals threw out an almost $20 million jury award to the family of Nancy Benoit who…

A federal court of appeals threw out an almost $20 million jury award to the family of Nancy Benoit who claimed Hustler Magazine violated their daughter's right of publicity by publishing nude photographs of her after she was killed by her husband, the professional wrestler Chris Benoit in a double murder-suicide.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) ruled that though Hustler wrongly published the photos, there was no evidence to support the 2011 jury award – $19.6 million, later reduced by the trial judge to $250,000. The court of appeals threw out the $250,000 judgment, leaving in place the $125,000 in compensatory damages that the jury awarded.

“Because there was overwhelming evidence that [the publishing company] reasonably and honestly (albeit mistakenly) believed that the photographs were subject to the newsworthiness exception to the right of publicity, we conclude that no reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that punitive damages were warranted in this case,” the court said.

Hustler published nude pictures of model and former-professional wrestler Nancy Benoit, who was strangled with a cord along with her son in 2007 by Chris Benoit – the child's father. Chris Benoit hung himself immediately following the murders.

Following her death, Hustler purchased the previously unpublished pictures of Nancy Benoit that were taken over 20 years ago. The pictures were published alongside a biography of Nancy Benoit’s life. Larry Flynt Publishing said the magazine had a right to print the photographs because they were newsworthy.

Donna Hahner, corporate vice president of Larry Flynt Publishing, testified that “everyone in the company felt we were on firm, solid legal ground that we had the right to freedom of press, that we had the right to publish photographs. They were newsworthy. We were writing a news article amidst a flurry of news reporting about Nancy Benoit’s early life,” according to the court documents.

Nancy Benoit’s mother, Maureen Toffoloni, however, filed suit, arguing that the magazine needed permission to publish the photos and sought damages for a violation of her daughter's right of publicity.

The suit was initially dismissed by a federal district court, which found the photos and accompanying article were newsworthy. The U.S. Court of Appeals found that Toffoloni could assert a claim of right of publicity, and sent the case back to the District Court.

The state of Georgia recognizes a right of publicity which protects the commercial interest of a celebrity’s name or likeness from exploitation without the consent of the celebrity. Courts have expanded this right to allow private citizens “not to have their names and photographs used for the financial gain of the user without their consent, where such use is not authorized as an exercise of freedom of the press,” according to the 2009 U.S. District Court opinion. Georgia also recognizes that a right of publicity descends to a celebrity’s family after death.

The District Court ruled that the death of Benoit did not make the 24-year-old photos newsworthy.

“LFP would have us rule that someone’s notorious death constitutes a [blank check] for the publication of any and all images of that person during his or her life, regardless of whether those images were intentionally kept private and regardless of whether those images are of any relation to the incident currently of public concern,” the court said in 2009.

Hustler appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, but the Court declined to hear the case and allowed the suit to proceed. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and clarify right of publicity claims.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: False light — Misappropriation — Right of publicity

· News: Media groups urge high court to review publicity case

· News: Hustler files High Court appeal in nude photos case

· NM&L: Supreme Court declines to hear right-of-publicity case