BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – A federal judge refused Monday to dismiss claims that producers of a six-part series on Natalee Holloway intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon the missing teen's mother and committed fraud by acquiring Holloway's DNA to investigate her disappearance in Aruba.
Rejecting a motion to dismiss by Oxygen Media and Brian Graden Media, which produced “The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway," Chief U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre said in a 26-page memorandum opinion that Beth Holloway “sufficiently alleged facts” that make her tort of outrage complaint plausible.
Bowdre called it plausible that Oxygen and Brian Graden Media acted with actual malice and thus their series and the articles they published are not protected by the First Amendment, even though Beth Holloway is a public figure.
“Suffering offense from truly insulting conduct is sometimes an unfortunate fact of life, so the law understandably hesitates to impose money damages for causing emotional distress in the minds of others,” Bowdre wrote. “But, in very limited circumstances, the law recognizes extremely egregious conduct that no person should be expected to endure without some sort of civil justice. This case plausibly presents such outrageous conduct.”
In Holloway’s amended complaint filed July 2018, she asked the court to award her $20 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages.
Natalee Holloway’s 2005 disappearance from a senior class trip to Aruba attracted international media attention.
“The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway” aired in 2017 and was billed as a true-crime documentary about the 19-year-old American who disappeared in 2005.
But Holloway’s mom alleged in her February 2018 complaint that the show was scripted and lied about details of Holloway’s disappearance.
Holloway argued the show’s producers were told the bones that they acquired in Aruba were animal remains but told her they discovered human remains when they asked for a sample of her DNA.
In a statement to Courthouse News, Holloway's attorney Taylor Wilson of L. Lin Wood PC in Atlanta praised the “well-reasoned decision” in the Alabama case.
“As the years have gone by since Natalee's 2005 disappearance,” Wilson said, “some members of the media have continued to ratchet up the sensationalism in their efforts to entertain while Beth has continued her struggle to cope. … There are constitutional limits to the media’s right to entertain and what families must endure in these situations, and that that constitutional line was crossed here.”
Since the judge issued the opinion, both sides will begin increasing their discovery, Wilson added.
The producers' attorney Harlan Prater IV meanwhile wrote in the motion to dismiss that a 2011 Supreme Court case involving Westboro Baptist Church showed that the First Amendment is a defense against claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“As an initial matter,” the motion to dismiss said, “there is no doubt that the Series and the Articles are core expressive speech about an issue of deep public concern: Natalee’s disappearance and possible murder. … Because the Series and the Articles addressed matters of public concern, they are presumptively shielded by the First Amendment against civil liability.”
John Thompson, Jr. of Birmingham-based firm Lightfoot Franklin & White is listed as the lead attorney for Oxygen and Brian Graden Media. He did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.