SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - Two California Highway Patrol officers who emailed gruesome photos of a decapitated 18-year-old accident victim to their friends on Halloween, "for pure shock value," must answer to claims brought by the victim's family after the images "were strewn about the Internet and spit back at family members, accompanied by hateful messages," a California appeals court ruled.
Justice Richard Aronson revived the family's privacy claims and chided the officers for their allegedly "morally deficient" behavior.
Officers Thomas O'Donnell and Aaron Reich emailed nine photos of Nikki Catsouras to their families and friends on Halloween night, and photos started "popping up in thousands of Web sites" across the United States and the United Kingdom, the ruling states.
The morbid photos were then "spit back" at the victim's family with taunts about their daughter. Catsouras' father, Christos Catsouras, received disturbing emails, including one entitled "Woo Hoo Daddy" that said, "Hey Daddy I'm still alive."
"[F]amily members have a common law privacy right in the death images of a decedent," Justice Aronson ruled, overturning the lower court's decisions sustaining the officers' demurrers and dismissing the case. Though California law doesn't bar the media from discussing or portraying the life of a decedent, it does protect death images, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled.
The Catsouras family had accused the officers of causing them emotional distress intentionally and with reckless disregard. Those accusations were enough to sustain the action, Justice Aronson ruled.
The court also allowed the family's negligence claims, ruling that the officers and the department had a duty of care not to put accident photos on the Internet.
Aronson said the alleged actions were "morally deficient," and said he hoped the ruling would protect families from such abuses in the future.
"We rely upon the CHP to protect and serve the public," Aronson wrote. "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."