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Family allowed to sue CHP over release of grisly crash photos

An appeals court has given an Orange County family the go-ahead to sue the CHP over graphic accident-scene photos its officers leaked to the public.

The opinion by the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana reverses a lower court's dismissal of a family's lawsuit against the CHP over the improper release of images of 18-year-old Nikki Catsouras' death in a car accident on a Lake Forest toll road on Halloween 2006.

The CHP has admitted that Officers Thomas O'Donnell and Aaron Reich e-mailed their friends and family members nine gruesome photos, including images of the woman's decapitated body "for pure shock value," according to the strongly worded 64-page ruling.

"Once received, the photographs were forwarded to others," the ruling stated, "and thus spread across the Internet like a malignant firestorm, popping up in thousands of websites."

Catsouras' relatives began receiving mysterious e-mails and text messages taunting them with the images, which were posted on websites that feature extreme pornography and sadistic and morbid curiosities.

Catsouras' father, mother and sisters filed suit against the CHP for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence.

But Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk dismissed most of the case, even though he called the officers' conduct "utterly reprehensible."

The appeals court, however, sided with the family, hoping to set a precedent that could prevent trauma to the loved ones of accident victims in the future.

"We rely upon the CHP to protect and serve the public," the ruling read. "It is antithetical to that expectation for the CHP to inflict harm upon us by making the ravaged remains of our loved ones the subjects of Internet sensationalism. It is important to prevent future harm to other families by encouraging the CHP to establish and enforce policies to preclude its officers from engaging in such acts ever again."

-- Tony Barboza

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Comments () | Archives (33)

So because their precious daughter took the family Porsche out for a spin in a teenage act of angst, they get to raid the state's treasury by suing the CHP?

There are things in this world that once you see and can not be un-seen.

Good, I'm glad. This family's privacy was violated in the worst possible way. The officers who released the photos should be held accountible for their actions. This was never about the money, the family wants only for it to not happen to anyone else.

I saw these photos and they are extremely graphic to say the least!

Jeesh, these guys are so pathetic they should get fired.

This one I totally agreed with the victim's family. CHP stepped over the line and should be punished.

"So because their precious daughter took the family Porsche out for a spin in a teenage act of angst, they get to raid the state's treasury by suing the CHP?"

No, because two on duty CHP officers took a terrible family tragedy, whatever the cause, and twisted it into their own perverse comedy, the family gets to raid the state's treasury.

I disagree that it is an invasion of the family's privacy. The daughter was killed in a public place, a highway, open for all to come and go as they please. It is the CHP's job to clean up the mess she left behind, and to document what happened. There is no privacy for the family in any of that. And in any case, she was 18, an adult, so the family's only interest in her is from whatever little "estate" she left behind.

However, the CHP officers were badly out of line. There job is to collect evidence and document events. Taking an official file and using it for entertainment and shock value is completely out of line. It is abuse of their position and they should be disciplined or fired for it.

The officers should be fired.

I don't think that the family deserves a monetary compensation.

But I do think they deserve a court verdict that states what the CHP officers did and the state should have to pay for all their court costs.

I am so against this lawsuit. The young woman who died in and who is depicted in the photos was completely at fault. Further, she almost killed another motorist in the process of killing herself. Now her family basically gets to sue the tax payers of California.

What kind of law enforcement officers are these?

John Taxpayer's ridiculous (not to mention unbelievably callous) comment shows a complete lack of understanding of the issue. This has nothing to do with who caused the accident or why it occurred. It's about holding the CHP responsible for their employees who, for their own sick entertainment, violated half a dozen CHP policies and the family's right to privacy by disseminating horrific photos of their mutilated daughter that were never supposed to be made public. That resulted in widespread publication over the internet where some truly disturbed people actually sent them to the family to taunt them. Any money they get will never compensate them for the pain they suffered - but maybe it will get the CHP to actually fire the people responsible and prevent this type of misconduct in the future.

The deceased was killed while committing a crime, operating a vehicle as a deadly weapon. The family deserves nothing from the state; the reverse is true. Showing the photos in drivers' ed classes is entirely appropriate.

What the family wants cannot happen. So what is next best? Fire the officers, and institute practices that insure that they will ever happen again. I understand that it was horrific and the reason for the accident doesn't matter, but we the taxpayers of the State of California do not have deep pockets. So whatever it costs (in actual changes, classes, etc) necessary, should be spent, but for the family to walk away with (probable) millions will just make the fixes that much more hard to finance. We are the people, the government and we feel bad for the family. But please do not hurt us financially either. You will never get compensated enough, there is not enough money to fix what happened. Don't think that it will.

While it was wrong for the police officers involved to take those photos to use for their comedy, I dont think the entire CHP is responsible. I think the family should be allowed to PERSONALLY sue the person(s) involved in sending the photos out in the first place.

Someone took pictures of my children at halloween time at some random house in our neighborhood we went to, and before I could say anything, they shut the door. (who does that??) it is perfectly legal for them to do that, there is No Law against people on the street taking your photo. *if they are not going to use it for lewd purposes* (but how do you prove that? )

This is what is wrong with Digital photos, and camera phones etc. You are video taped and caught on film everywhere you go.

We shouldn't give law enforcement any different respect than we give each other. Just because they wear a uniform doesn't mean that they should be treated any diffently. There are sick pervs that are patrolling our streets that feel they should be given respect, I disagree and these types of people should be punished for releasing those photos.

The CHP is not getting sued, the taxpayers are. We are the ones that pay up in the end.

Where can I find the picture?

As a former cop, I can say that we frequently saw gruesome sights at the scenes of homicides, traffic collisions, expolsions and the like. Although we maintained a sense of "gallows humor" to keep our own sanity, photos of the scene were commonly distributed amongst ourselves as training aids to assist those not at the scene with the development of investigative skills. To study the manner by which someone was injured or to see the severity of the injury was the starting point by which seat belts, laminated safety glass and padded dashboards were invented.

So now my question is where the Officers sending the photos to be shocking or educational? That they were eventually posted on gory websites was likely not the intention of the Officers when they were originally transmitted.

My dog got run over by a car and now I've got a 2.8 Billion Dollar lawsuit pending with the County of Orange since the Road Kill Clean up crew snapped a couple of photos of Fido!!

I'm one of those people that received the email with the pictures. I showed it to my 16 year old cousins so they can see what happens when you don't control your emotions while driving. At best, the family should only seek CHP reform so this doesn't happen again. This article didn't mention the family seeking financial compensation. Invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress... I don't agree with that. Negligence yes. It happened on a public road and the young lady did hit another car first.

The Catsouras' family is right on the money and
they should get millions and millions of dollars so
other public employees will not do the same type of
behavior...
yes...the public employees odonell and reich should be
fired as their actions and behavior cannot be public funded...
with more massive money settlements hopefully management
will keep a closer eye on public personnel and get rid of them
before problems like this come to exist...but this is exactly what
needs to get their attention to change...massive money settlements.

The Catsouras' family is right on the money and
they should get millions and millions of dollars so
other public employees will not do the same type of
behavior...
yes...the public employees odonell and reich should be
fired as their actions and behavior cannot be public funded...
with more massive money settlements hopefully management
will keep a closer eye on public personnel and get rid of them
before problems like this come to exist...but this is exactly what
needs to get their attention to change...massive money settlements.

I'm glad there going to get justice. Hopefully... I don't see why the CHP had to do that. That is just so sick.

this family is looking for a nice payday after a horrible accident.

 
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