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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)

These CHP officers should have just accomplished their duty of determining the cause of the accident and who might be at fault in it, instead of sending pictures of the girl while she was still in the remains of the vehicle. It saddens me to know that the family may be still grieving for the lost of their loved one, whose reputation was affected by the pictures that were leaked by the officers.

The Calif Highway patrol publishes a magazine,with car accidents of the worse magnitude,decapitated bodies etc,i use to ses it all over the place, i really dont see the differance, but to send the photos to the poor girls family is beyond sick,for the officers to use these photos for their and their friends amusement is also sick, as a ret calif cop i say fire them,i dont want officers with this mindset patolling my streets...

I hope the Catsouras family gets their day in court and prevail in their lawsuit against the CHP and ensure that this doesn't happen again by someone who's job is to protect and serve the public. I really don't think they are looking for a big payday, just some justice. Imagine for a minute that there were photos of a loved one or friend of yours out there floating on the Internet and some coward emails those photos to you? Or better yet, they are posted on some gross porn site? The surviving family members have rights. There also need to be some punishment for those that inflict cruel harrassment yet suffer little consequence, especially over the Internet.

First of all, the two gentelemen were NOT CHP officers, but persons who worked for CHP in a civilian role. And the accusation that they released the photos for "pure shock value" is a crock. They obtained the photos in a legal matter and used very poor judgement in posting them on an anti drunk driving website. It is horrible to see those photos on the Internet, but I don't think money will erase that pain. And the CHP as an organization doesn't deserve condemnation.

How convenient to blame CHP and not yourself? The photos are used to deter people from doing the same thing, and endangering other lives. Remember the crash videos of traffic school. The family just wants a scapegoat and is money hungry, and instead should be helping CHP and other agencies to prevent these senseless accidents.

This is to inform everyone those two men involved in this case (Thomas O'Donnell and Aaron Reich) are CHP dispatchers, not Officers.

To Eric C: What difference does it make? They're all corrupt and immoral anyway!

The 18yr old dead girl is in no way responsible for the actions of the two officers who abused their position by willfully and deliberately using her photos to entertain and shock others. The poor girl's family suffered greatly because of improperly released pictures that make even many a horror film look tame.

I was reading the SF Chronicle when the story of the parent's suffering broke, and after wondering about the family's lawsuit, I made the mistake of following a poster's link to the photos. Like so many of the other posters, I was terribly sorry that I did. I immediately empathized and sympathized with the family. I honestly had nightmares, and still remember the inappropriately released photos with vivid horror. I can only imagine what her poor relatives have endured, through no fault of their own, and all because the CHP has a system that allows such mean spirited abuses to take place.

To blame the dead girl is cruel and thoughtless. To trivialize her family's suffering, or the need to block this kind of despicable behavior in the future, is shockingly clueless. This could happen to anyone's family, and under a huge array of death circumstances, especially when a teenager is involved.

The court was right. The CHP was remiss in allowing a process that took no safeguards to prevent this kind of deplorable abuse.

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