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Family allowed to sue CHP over release of grisly crash photos

February 2, 2010 |  9:20 am

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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