LOS ANGELES (CN) – A former student of a scandal-plagued South Carolina school sued producers of a documentary who altered his yearbook image to illustrate allegations of sexual abuse cover-ups.
Adam Bonsignori said producers of the documentary “What Haunts Us” defamed him when they used his 1979 yearbook photo in marketing materials.
The film recounts a dark chapter of sexual abuse perpetrated by teacher Eddie Fischer at the Porter-Gaud school in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Producers slapped the ad slogan, “Pay Attention To Who’s Paying Attention To Your Kids” over Bonsignori’s face, partially obscuring his eyes and nose. He says the ad implies either that he is a sexual abuser or that he knew about the sexual abuse and failed to report it – and that the slogan sensationalizes school sex abuse.
According to Thursday’s complaint filed in federal court, one of the themes of the 2018 Emmy-nominated film is that people were aware of what was happening but did nothing to stop it.
Bonsignori, a father and teacher in Florida, said he was “horrified, humiliated, embarrassed and distressed” when people recognized him in the film’s ads.
Before being shown on theater screens and on Starz’s cable network, the film appeared in a Charleston theater in March 2018. A month later, Bonsignori’s wife noticed his image in film ads.
“This caused great embarrassment to Bonsignori, who also feared that other people who knew him may now believe that he was a sexual predator,” the 15-page complaint said.
Bonsignori’s wife sent a Facebook message to the film’s producers on May 2, 2018, requesting they stop using the image.
The producers wrote back promising to do say, Bonsignori says.
“The idea that you and Adam are uncomfortable in any way upsets us tremendously and we will absolutely end the usage of the studio-created image in our poster and key art immediately,” the producers told Bonsignori’s wife, according to the complaint.
Two days later, after spotting his image again on film ads, Bonsignori hired attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs of Rufus-Isaacs, Acland & Grantham. Rufus-Isaacs sent producers a letter requesting they cease using the image on May 7.
In a May 14 email, defendants’ counsel agreed to remove the image from ad campaigns.
But Bonsignori said the image continued to be used in subsequent film ads, and he has had trouble gauging whether his friends and family truly believe his “protestations” that he is not connected to the film’s subject matter.
Bonsignori is suing Los Angeles resident Paige Goldberg Tolmach, a producer and star in the film, for defamation, false light, and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Tolmach was also a student at Porter-Gaud but was six grades behind Bonsignori. The complaint states the two did not know each other because of the school’s split into upper and lower divisions.
Film distributors Starz Entertainment and Blue Fox Entertainment, along with production companies The Stranger You Know and The Kennedy/Marshall Company are also named defendants.
Bonsignori claims he was not a victim of the abuse and knew nothing about it until Fischer’s arrest in 1997.
Fischer was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1999.
Bonsignori seeks punitive damages and a jury trial, as well as an injunction barring the documentary’s producers from distributing and promoting the image.
Porter-Gaud is currently closed until further notice due to threats posed by Hurricane Florence.