CHICAGO (CN) – A man hurt by a letter bomb that killed his friend claims in court that Discovery TV defamed him in a show that portrayed him as the “direct impetus behind his best friend’s death.”
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Alphonso Butler sued Discovery Communications in Federal Court.
Discovery Communications owns 149 television networks, including the Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, and Science and Investigation Discovery.
Butler claims that Discovery’s ID channel produced a show called “Lust for Life,” based on a true event in his life.
Butler and his best friend, Marcus Toney, went to dinner in February 2000 and discussed “the problems Mr. Toney was having in his marriage, including his wife’s apparent extramarital affair; an apparent theft of his identify and ruining of his impeccable credit; and a strange package Mr. Toney had received in the mail,” the complaint states. “Mr. Toney speculated that the package may contain a VCR box. The gentlemen thus surmised at dinner that the package may further contain a sex tape in a VCR showing Mr. Toney’s wife involved in a sex act with the man with whom she may have been having an affair.
“When the gentlemen arrived at Mr. Toney’s … house that evening, the strange package was sitting on Mr. Toney’s cocktail table in his living room. Immediately, Mr. pointed to the box, walked into his kitchen, and asked plaintiff to open the box for him. As the package contained an outer box and an inner box, plaintiff began inspecting the outer box (which had already been partially opened). As plaintiff was delaying opening the package further, Mr. Toney rushed out of the kitchen and said, ‘you still have not opened it?!’ and stood in front of plaintiff as he (Mr. Toney) started to open the packaging. Immediately as Mr. Toney started to open the inner box, there was a major explosion, which it was later determined to have been caused by a pipe bomb. Consequently, Mr. Toney was killed and plaintiff was severely injured, both physically and emotionally.” (Parentheses in complaint.)
Toney’s wife, Lisa Toney, and her boyfriend Sienky Lallemand were convicted of conspiring to kill Toney, the Chicago Tribune reported after Lisa Toney’s 2003 trial. She was sentenced to life in prison.
The Discovery ID episode, broadcast in June this year, “included a re-enacted scene, with actors, that purported to describe the real life event of the pipe bomb explosion that occurred at the house of the deceased Mr. Toney, referencing plaintiff by name (‘Alphonso Butler’) and referring to him as the deceased’s ‘best friend.’ The episode also included actual footage of plaintiff on a stretcher about to be lifted into an ambulance after the explosion,” the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
Butler claims no one from Discovery Communications sought his permission to use his name or image in the episode.
“Adding insult to injury, the reenacted scene of the ‘Lust for Life’ episode that purported to describe the real life event of the pipe bomb explosion misrepresented the actual events,” the complaint states. “Contrary to what plaintiff, the only living witness to the murder, had told federal agents and Chicago police officers in the aftermath of the incident, the re-enactment portrays plaintiff as having encouraged Mr. Toney to open the package, while portraying the deceased as having been reluctant to open the package.
“This misrepresentation has placed plaintiff in the light of having been the direct impetus behind his best friend’s death. … Plaintiff has suffered severed emotional distress and physical harm as a result of being forced to relive the tragic incident, and to have to relive it through a misrepresentation that made his best friend’s horrendous death appear to be partially his fault. Plaintiff has been forced to seek therapy from such injuries.”
Butler claims Discovery financially benefited from using his name and image without consent, especially given that “the incident described herein has received substantial press coverage since the murder and subsequently trial of the perpetrators in 2000 and 2002, respectively, both locally and nationally. Plaintiff’s name, image and likeness have been a significant part of the press related to the incident, particularly since he is the only living witness to the murder and the best friend of the deceased. Accordingly, plaintiff’s name, image and likeness had developed commercial value prior to ID Network’s misappropriation of his name, image and likeness in the 2012 ‘Lust for Life’ episode.”
Butler seeks punitive damages for misappropriation of right of publicity, defamation and emotional distress, and wants Discovery enjoined from rebroadcasting “Lust for Life.”
He is represented by Manotti Jenkins.
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