$2.37M Settlement After Horrific Fatal Accident Photos Leaked by Police, Bringing More Grief to a Family Mourning Their Daughter
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on February 3rd, 2012
As if losing their 18-year-old daughter in a terrible car crash weren’t enough, a California family then had to suffer all over again when investigating officers from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) took photos of the gruesome scene which were later distributed to others in emails.
The photos then spread wildly across the Internet on some 1,600 Web sites, according to an investigation.
And these were no ordinary photographs. The teen, Nicole “Nikki” Catsouras, took her dad’s Porsche from their home without permission on Halloween in 2006 and drove it at more than 100 mph before crashing into another car and a highway toll booth, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times. The impact shredded the car to pieces and left the teen’s decapitated and broken body in clear view at the scene.
The photos were eventually leaked outside the department by two CHP dispatchers, the story reported. That’s not supposed to happen. Accident investigation photos are not supposed to go outside of a police department.
The family sued for invasion of privacy and this week, more than five years after the crash,the girl’s family reached a $2.37 million settlement with the CHP in connection with the department’s role in the matter, the newspaper reported.
“The young woman was so badly disfigured that her family wasn’t allowed to see her body after the crash, but images of the gruesome scene began multiplying online, appearing on thousands of websites,” the paper reported. “On many of them, Catsouras — dubbed as ‘Porsche girl’ — was mocked as a spoiled rich girl who deserved to die. Messages taunting the family were also sent anonymously to their home.”
The grief from their daughter’s death and the continuing presence of the horrific images online caused the family to file their lawsuit against the CHP in 2007.
The lawsuit was first rejected by an Orange County (Calif.) Superior Court judge, according to the paper, after the judge ruled that the CHP “had not breached any legal duty to the family. The law, at the time, did not recognize the right of family members to sue for invasion of privacy involving photos of the dead.”
Later, though, California’s 4th District Court of Appeal reversed the Superior Court decision, ruling that “surviving family members have a right to sue for invasion of privacy in such cases,” according to the Times.
Yet the pain for the family has lingered because though the settlement was in their favor, many of the Web sites that posted the horrific photos of their daughter’s accident injuries still have not removed the images. The family is continuing its efforts to have the images removed, the paper said.
As part of the lawsuit settlement, the CHP is continuing its own efforts to get the images removed from the Web sites that have posted them.
Ultimately, the public posting of these terrible accident photographs never should have happened, according to the law.
Even after the family hired a company to help them try to get the photos removed from the Web sites that posted them, most refused to take the photos down, arguing their First Amendment rights to free speech, according to an ABC News story.
True, the Web sites that posted these hideous images have the right of free speech and could publish them, even though most of us might disagree with the context.
But none of this would have likely happened, none of the images would have been posted online, had the CHP dispatchers not emailed them outside their department in the first place.
Their action was just wrong and heartless.
That’s why the family sued and won a settlement for their grief. The money will never repay them for their loss and for the horrors that still exist for them as they worry that they will accidentally see the photos if they go online.
Yes, there is a right to free speech, but there is also a right to privacy in our nation. This settlement for the family proves that the right to privacy is just as important.