(CN) – A man who was in a car accident with a drunken driver can sue the news company that allegedly photographed him at the scene and sold his image on T-shirts, a federal judge ruled.
Thomas Peckham III says a drunken driver crossed into the opposite lane and collided head-on with his car on Independence Day 2008. As emergency personnel worked to free Peckham from the wreck, Peckham allegedly noticed his family watching from the roadside and tried to wave at them so they would know he was still alive.
A New England Newspapers photographer captured the moment, and the picture appeared the next day along with a news article reporting the accident in the North Adams Transcript, a daily newspaper in North Adams, Mass.
Peckham, his wife and his parents filed suit, claiming that the publication violated his privacy. Though the family conceded that the photograph was newsworthy, they claim that the publisher has been selling “reproductions of the accident scene photo in color on Tee-shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse pads.”
They say the products have cause them to suffer emotional distress.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Neiman noted that “the court harbors serious doubts about the viability of this position.”
He still refused to dismiss the case Monday, finding that the photo’s “newsworthiness” may not permit the paper to sell the photo on merchandise.
“As far as the court is aware, there is only a single instance in which a Massachusetts court, state or federal, made the determination that reasonable minds could not differ as to the newsworthiness of a particular publication at the motion to dismiss stage,” Neiman wrote.
“For present purposes, the court finds that reasonable minds may disagree as to whether the sale of an accident photograph, unaccompanied by any information regarding the accident, sold exclusively for commercial purposes disconnected to the dissemination of news, following the prior publication of the photograph alongside an undisputedly legitimate news article, crosses the line from the mere ‘giving of information’ to a ‘sensational prying into private lives for its own sake,'” he added.
Neiman concluded that “the universe of information known about defendant’s alleged conduct stems from only two sentences in plaintiffs’ complaint, one stating that defendant made ‘commercial sale reproductions of the accident scene photo in color on Tee-shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse pads’, and the other stating that, due to defendant’s ‘exploitation of the [accident photograph] on mouse pads, tee-shirts and coffee mugs, [Peckham’s] right to privacy has been violated and he has suffered damages as a result thereof.’ Thus, the court is left to speculate as to what additional facts discovery might yield, and it declines to do so.”