Damages Upheld in |Crime Stoppers Libel Case

     (CN) — A Nebraska woman was properly awarded more than $250,000 in damages after the city of Lincoln wrongfully accused her of using a stolen credit card, the state’s highest court ruled.
     Shayla Funk sued the city and Lincoln-Lancaster Crime Stoppers Inc. for libel, slander, defamation and invasion of privacy after a photo of her using her ATM card appeared on the Crime Stoppers website.
     “This young lady doesn’t look like your typical crook, but she is!” the caption read. “She used someone’s stolen credit card … If you know who she is, leave us a tip HERE!”
     A bank customer had reported that his credit card stolen in May 2013. He said money had been unlawfully removed from his account through an ATM.
     A Lincoln police officer investigated, and the bank tracked down surveillance footage from the time of the transaction. It showed a woman using a debit card to withdraw money.
     The officer testified that the video had the correct ATM machine and date. However, there was no time stamp on the video.
     Unable to identify the woman in the video, the officer asked an audio and video technician to grab still images from the video and forward them to be posted on the Crime Stoppers website.
     In addition to the web posting, the story was televised on KOLN/KGIN 10/11 News, according to court records show. An image of Funk at the ATM also appeared on the Crime Stoppers Facebook page, but it showed her torso and not her face.
     Several local residents told Lincoln police that Funk was the woman in the video. She told police that she was in the video but did not use a stolen credit card.
     Still, Funk was cited for unauthorized use of a financial transaction device. She was depicted on 10/11 News again in a segment on how the Crime Stoppers program works.
     Officer Shane Winterbauer allegedly said on the telecast, “We confronted her with the fact that the card was somebody else’s, and she couldn’t come up with an explanation for that.”
     Funk’s bank responded to a subpoena by showing that she had made a legitimate banking transaction at the ATM that day. The deputy county attorney informed Funk that charges had not been filed against her.
     Funk, a physical therapist, testified that she was placed on unpaid leave as a result of Crime Stoppers’ reports. She added that she took a new job because she felt that her employer did not believe that she was innocent.
     She also presented testimony from friends, family and her fiancé. They said Funk had been embarrassed and humiliated by the incident.
     According to testimony, when Funk would enter a room, people would joke, “everybody hide your debit cards.”
     The trial court ruled in Funk’s favor, awarding her $259,217 to be paid by the city. She was also awarded $75,000 against Crime Stoppers, but that amount and $75,000 of the city’s penalty was a “joint and several judgment.” The city was to be solely responsible for the remainder of the judgment against it, court records show.
     The city was also ordered to publish a retraction, stating that a simple investigation by its police department would have shown that Funk was innocent.
     The city appealed, arguing that it was entitled to qualified privilege because it made its communications in good faith and without malice.
     The Nebraska Supreme Court disagreed Monday in an opinion written by Justice Max J. Kelch.
     “When a party making a defamatory statement takes no steps to investigate but relies entirely on information received from another without verification, he or she has not acted as a reasonably prudent person and lacks probable or reasonable grounds for making the defamatory statement, in which event the statement may not be protected by a qualified privilege,” he wrote.
     The state’s high court also affirmed the amount of damages, which the city argued was speculative and conjectural.
     “Not only does the evidence show that the statements affected Funk’s personal reputation in her hometown of Ewing, but it is also clear that Funk’s reputation was harmed in the context of her employment with Grand Island Physical Therapy,” Kelch wrote.
     However, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed the portion of the ruling that called for a retraction.
     “Although the attractiveness of the district court’s equitable relief is not lost upon this court, we find the district court had the authority to award only damages, and the portion of the district court’s order granting equitable relief is hereby vacated,” Kelch wrote.
     A Lincoln city attorney declined Thursday to comment on the ruling.
     Vince Powers, Funk’s attorney, said the case “demonstrates what happens when government ignores the concept of innocent until proven guilty.”
     “Unfortunately when the police declare you guilty of a crime, few people will believe that you are innocent,” Powers said.

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