(CN) – The company that supplied preserved human corpses to the controversial “Bodies” exhibition can proceed with a libel and defamation lawsuit against a competing tour that claimed the specimens were executed Chinese prisoners bought on the black market.
Hongjin Sui, a doctor of anatomy, and Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique preserved human bodies and organs in plastic and then sold them to Premier Exhibitions, which specializes in creating museum exhibits that tour internationally.
The researchers say they obtained unclaimed cadavers from China in keeping with the country’s practice of delivering such specimens to scientific research. Premier launched the “Bodies: The Exhibit” in Tampa, Fla., about six years ago.
After the exhibit closed in 2008, the Institute for Plastination (IFP) launched a competing tour called “Body Worlds,” also in Tampa for six months.
Sui, Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique, Dalian Medical University Plastination and Premier President and CEO Arnie Geller sued Institute for Plastination and its former director, Gunther von Hagens for defamation and tortuous inference.
They claim von Hagens directed a former employee, Dequiang Sun, to lie about the origin of Sui’s work for an investigative news piece that aired on ABC’s “20/20.”
In that newscast, the defendants claimed that “(1) the bodies for the ‘Bodies … the Exhibition’ were purchased on China’s ‘black market,’ and were bodies of tortured, abused and executed Chinese prisoners; (2) dealers made ‘body runs’ to the ‘black market’ and purchased bodies which included executed prisoners for approximately $200-300; (3) executed bodies were located in a rotting warehouse in northern China; (4) von Hagens stated it was quite normal that executed prisoners were used for anatomical purposes in China; (5) the bodies were obtained illegally; and (6) the bodies which were either obtained from the ‘black market’ or otherwise illegally obtained were used in ‘Bodies … the Exhibition.'”
Von Hagens filed a motion to dismiss claiming he had said only that “it is not quite normal that executed prisoners are used for anatomical purposes in China,” which he defends as directed toward the Chinese anatomical community and prison system, not the exhibit.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich rejected the motion on June 6 and directed him to answer the complaint.
“Through Sun, von Hagens allegedly directed the false information to ABC with the intent that it be broadcasted nationally. In airing these statements, von Hagens allegedly harmed the Plaintiffs’ reputation in each forum in which their plastinated works are exhibited,” Kovachevich wrote.
The Institute for Plastination also tried to have the complaint dismissed, saying von Hagen does not work for it.
“Specifically, Plaintffs argue that the frequent reference to von Hagens’ founding and involvement with IfP, reflected on IfP’s website, allows for a reasonable inference that von Hagens is an agent of IfP under the doctrine of apparent authority,” the ruling states.
Kovachevich disagreed here in a separate ruling. “However, through the alleged actions carried out by von Hagens specified in the Second Amended Complaint, IfP is responsible for an intentional tort. As an agent of IfP, von Hagens allegedly intended that defamatory information be broadcasted nationwide and, thus, directed at every state in which the Plaintiffs’ plastinated displays might be exhibited,” she wrote.
Kovachevich also rejected the company’s motion for summary judgment in a third decision, finding that the lawsuit was time barred after two years.
“In present case, plaitiffs’ defamation claim is based on statements aired on the Feb. 15, 2008 episode of 20/20,” she wrote on June 13. “Accordingly the plaintiff’s filed their complaint on February 15, 2010 – within two years of the broadcast.”
The defendants had argued that “20/20” conducted the actual interview earlier, but ultimately the judge found that the statute starts the clock at first publication.
Lastly, Kovachevich rejected the argument that the tortuous-inference claim was made up of the defamatory statements and does not fall under the single cause of action rule.
“This court finds sufficient evidence that plaintiff’s tortuous interference claim is not simply a restatement of the
defamation claim but is based on separate conduct engaged in by the defendants,” Kovachevich wrote.
Kovachevich refused to reconsider her ruling on June 29. That same day, she also came down against the defendants’ response to the complaint. She ruled that about 20 of the defendants’ affirmative defenses as specific denials, but refused to strike another three affirmative defenses that she found sufficiently pleaded.
In May, the creators of “Bodies” won a similar ruling to continue suing a human rights foundation that attacked the exhibit’s methods.