Christos and Lesli Catsouras, whose daughter's fatal car accident was shown in photos posted on thousands of Web sites, can sue the California Highway Patrol for releasing the photos and prolonging the family's anguish, a California appeals court has ruled.
In a unanimous opinion filed Jan. 29, a three-justice panel said a lower court was wrong to toss the suit and rule that the highway patrol and two of its officers breached no legal duty to the Catsouras family. By allegedly e-mailing friends several photos of 18-year-old Nicole Catsouras' decapitated body, the justices wrote, the highway patrol officers may have violated the family's right to privacy and caused them emotional distress, issues that a jury should be allowed to resolve.
"We rely upon the CHP to protect and serve the public," the appeals court said. "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."
Christos Catsouras, Nicole's father, said he was "looking forward to confronting" the highway patrol in court for its "incompetent behavior. Up until now, the CHP has told us that there was nothing that they could do about the pictures and that we were on our own. We are thankful now that we finally have an opportunity to get them to sit down and talk to us and offer help."
Lawyers for the two officers -- Aaron Reich and Thomas O'Donnell -- said they would probably ask the California Supreme Court to reverse the decision.
"Reviewable issues are just popping off the pages" of the opinion, said Alexander R. Wheeler, who represents O'Donnell and says his client is innocent and didn't e-mail the photos to anyone. "An emotional set of facts has led the court to create a new area of the law…We are truly in uncharted waters."
Jon Schlueter, Reich's lawyer, said his client was justified in sending the photos outside the department "as a warning to his friends and his family," because "he wanted to convey that it is really, really dangerous" to drive out of control. According to CHP reports, Nicole was clocked at more than 100 mph when she clipped another car, lost control and slammed into a toll booth.
The California Highway Patrol declined to comment on the appeals court decision but stressed that the department had investigated the incident, tightened procedures for handling photographs and worked to have the photos of the accident removed from Web sites.
"As previously articulated to the Catsouras family, the men and women of the CHP feel for the tragic loss of their daughter," said spokeswoman Fran Clader. "The CHP is a professional law enforcement agency and demands its employees conduct themselves appropriately at all times."
The Catsouras family, meanwhile, continues to relive their daughter's death and the grief that it has brought.
At approximately 1:45 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2006, 15 minutes after taking her father's Porsche 911 for a drive without permission, Nikki Catsouras was speeding on State Route 241, near Lake Forest, Calif., when the accident occurred and killed her instantly. Photos of her decapitated body, still strapped into the car, were taken by highway patrol officers investigating the crash, in accordance with departmental policy.