Law School Case Brief
Shulman v. Group W Productions, Inc. - 18 Cal. 4th 200, 74 Cal. Rptr. 2d 843, 955 P.2d 469 (1998)
Courts have generally protected the privacy of otherwise private individuals involved in events of public interest by requiring that a logical nexus exist between the complaining individual and the matter of legitimate public interest. The contents of the publication or broadcast are protected only if they have some substantial relevance to a matter of legitimate public interest. Recent decisions have generally tested newsworthiness with regard to such individuals by assessing the nexus between the events that brought the person into the public eye and the particular facts disclosed. These decisions have used a number of equivalent phrases to describe the necessary relationship. This approach balances the public's right to know against the plaintiff's privacy interest by drawing a protective line at the point the material revealed ceases to have any substantial connection to the subject matter of the newsworthy report. Legitimate public interest does not include a morbid and sensational prying into private lives for its own sake.
One who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The action for intrusion has two elements: (1) intrusion into a private place, conversation, or matter, (2) in a manner highly offensive to a reasonable person.
Plaintiffs Ruth Shulman and her son, Wayne Shulman, who are not public figures, were injured when their car went off the highway, overturning and trapping them inside. A medical transport and rescue helicopter crew came to plaintiffs' assistance, accompanied by a video camera operator employed by defendant Group W Productions, Inc., a television producer ("Group W"). The cameraman filmed plaintiffs' extrication from the car, the flight nurse and medic's efforts to give them medical care during the extrication, and their transport to the hospital in the helicopter. The flight nurse wore a small microphone that picked up her conversations with other rescue workers and with Mrs. Shulman. This videotape and soundtrack were edited into a segment that was broadcast on a documentary television show. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in California state court against Group W and others, alleging two claims: invasion of privacy, based on unlawful intrusion by videotaping the rescue, and public disclosure of private facts, based on the broadcast. Group W filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on both claims on the ground that the events depicted in the broadcast were newsworthy and Group W's activities were therefore protected under the First Amendment. On appeal, the appellate court reversed, finding triable issues of fact exist as to Mrs. Shulman's claim for publication of private facts and legal error on the trial court's part as to both plaintiffs' intrusion claims. Plaintiffs appealed.
(1) Was Group W properly granted summary judgment on Mrs. Shulman's private facts claim? (2) Was Group W properly granted summary judgment on both plaintiffs' intrusion claims?
(1) Yes; (2) No.
The state supreme court affirmed in part and reversed in part the appellate court's judgment. The court ruled that: (1) Summary judgment was proper as to the claim for publication of private facts because the broadcast was newsworthy as a matter of law and, therefore, could not be the basis for tort liability under a private facts claim. (2) Summary judgment was improper as to the intrusion claim because triable issues existed as to whether Group W invaded plaintiffs' privacy by accompanying them in the helicopter and as to whether Group W tortiously intruded by listening to Mrs. Shulman's confidential conversations with a nurse at the rescue scene without Shulman's consent. Moreover, Group W had no First Amendment privilege to intrude on plaintiffs' seclusion and private communications.
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