Mother Claims TV News Defamed Her
HOUSTON (CN) - Houston's CBS TV affiliate defamed a woman in a broadcast that claimed she left her two young children in her hot car while she got her hair cut, the woman claims in court.
Araceli Cisneros sued KHOU-TV Inc., its owner Gannett Co., and its reporter Rucks Russell, on Wednesday in Harris County Court.
Cisneros says she was running errands with her two kids on July 14, a typically sweltering 98 degree summer day in Houston, and she took them into a Postal+ store with her.
"When she got to her car, Cisneros put her children in their car seats and closed the door," the complaint states. "As soon as the door closed, Cisneros knew that she had left her car keys in the back seat next to her children."
Cisneros says she immediately ran into the Postal + store for help.
Not wanting to wait for a locksmith, she "enlisted the help of a fellow citizen who broke the car window with a hammer," she says.
"Right after the window shattered, Cisneros herself reached inside the car, unlocked the doors and comforted her children, who were visibly upset from all of the commotion," according to the complaint. "Most of the event was captured by an observer using his cell, who, had he been truly concerned about the welfare of Cisneros' children, would have done something other than watch from the comfort of a shaded walkway.
"Someone (likely the observer) contacted KHOU, and Russell got the story." (Parentheses in complaint.)
Cisneros claims that a story about a Georgia man who was arrested and charged with murder after his 22-month-old son died in his hot car had just made national headlines, and KHOU was eager to scoop a similar story.
So "without even doing the most basic fact-checking" or interviewing Cisneros, she says, Russell and KHOU "told the world that Cisneros had intentionally left her children in the car while she was getting her haircut at the salon next to the Postal+ store and that complete strangers, acting as good Samaritans, broke her car window and rescued Cisneros' children," according to the complaint.
Cisneros says she heard about the story from relatives in Florida, after it made the evening news there.
The story went viral and international and the Washington Post and Daily Mail picked it up, Cisneros says.
"Nancy Grace even weighed in on the situation and called Cisneros an unfit mother ... based on KHOU's reporting," the complaint states.
Cisneros says the public reaction made her afraid that Child Protective Services would take her children away, and she started parking her car in her garage to avoid vigilante justice.
One man posted on KHOU's website that "'someone [made a mistake] when [he] MOUNTED [Cisneros] and made [her] a mother' and that she was 'less than an animal,'" according to the complaint. (Brackets and caps as in the lawsuit.)
Cisneros says that when reports surfaced that KHOU got the story wrong "Russell did what he should have done in the first place: investigate."
She says Russell learned the truth and KHOU retracted the story, but the damage had been done.
She seeks punitive damages for defamation and infliction of emotional distress.
She is represented by Melissa Moore of Houston.
KHOU did not return a request for comment.