from the i-see-dead-people dept
Well, this is a new one for me. I've never watched the now-concluded show Southland, but it was apparently a typical police procedural show known for being particularly realistic and gritty. As you'd imagine for such a show, the opening credits montage was apparently equally gritty and realistic. So realistic, in fact, that the show's producers used some real-life autopsy photos from real murder victims. One victim's family is, to say the least, not pleased. The victim's mother and sister have filed suit in California.
The suit was filed by Hilda Abarca and Jessica Abarca on their own behalf and as successor to the late Andy Nelson Abarca, who the suit says was murdered in 2005. The defendants are Warner Bros. Television, producer John Wells, NBC, Turner Network Television, the city of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles and Warner Home Video.I'd really like at this point to tell you all what the actual law regarding autopsy photos and their usage is, but it's one of those areas of law so spiderwebbed throughout federal and state laws that it's quite difficult to come to any real conclusions. The Southern Poverty Law Center's explanation in an unrelated post appears to be that autopsies and their photos are generally considered public domain, except of course when individual states carve out exemptions to this for specific types of usage (i.e. pending criminal court cases). California law is especially ambiguous on this front.
According to the suit Andy Nelson Abarca was murdered on Sept. 28, 2005. In mid-September 2013 the plaintiffs say they saw his autopsy photo at the beginning of Southland, apparently taken while his body was in the custody of the country coroner.
In some states, including California, autopsy reports are deemed to be confidential under public-records exemptions that protect confidential law enforcement records being used in pending criminal cases. In such states, it’s possible to go back and argue for access once the prosecution is concluded and the “pending criminal case” rationale no longer applies.Since this instance has absolutely nothing to do with a pending court case, one would think the general rule of thumb, autopsies are public records, would apply. The law being as ambiguous as it is, however, means this case is likely to go forward without a swift dismissal. And, boy, is the suit from the family members a doozy.
As a result of the use of this photo, the suit says both the mother and daughter have “suffered anxiety, anger, hopelessness, fear and distrust of authority,” as well as “physical and emotional discomfort, injury and damage, apprehension, psychological trauma, loss of dignity, nightmares, loss of trust” and other injuries. The suit says this has impacted their health, strength and activity and caused injury to their nervous system and person. It means they will have to incur expenses to treat psychological injuries using drugs and others “sundries” required in the treatment.As anyone who has read my work knows, I certainly would never want to be insensitive to someone filing a lawsuit, but it strikes me that one would have to have a real commitment to watching a show's opening montage that included such damaging mental material to warrant the kind of physical and psychological therapy alleged by the suit, not to mention the pharmaceuticals. It's also unclear to me how an opening montage that features the lifeless body of a loved one would cause any damage to the nervous system and person of someone watching the images, unless of course these people own a television that has the capacity to punch them, in which case, I mean, just throw out the TV, right? I mean, the two family members could just use their remotes.
The suit seeks damages of at least $750 for each unauthorized use (every time the show played) as well as punitive damages and an injunction to stop the future use of the photo.
That said, the case might be useful in getting some more solid caselaw on the books regarding the use of autopsy records and their status as public records. While I can understand the discomfort of this particular family's plight, the end result should not be more barriers to public information and work performed by public servants.