Six women in St. Louis have filed a lawsuit against a plastic surgeon who allegedly posted nude photos online of their torsos before and after surgery with their names attached to the images. The women say this was done without their consent or knowledge.
The before and after photos appeared in Google images if the women's names were searched or if the doctor's name was searched, according Neil Bruntrager, the attorney representing all of the women. He said that if a viewer hovered the curser over the image, the woman's name would appear below the photo.
"Some of these women have public positions—lawyers, teachers, CPAs—all kinds of people who would be searched," Bruntrager said. "They were horrified. Every one of them has said, 'I'm embarrassed. I'm humiliated.'"
The first woman who came to Bruntrager discovered the photos while on a business trip. He said that she works for a large national company and noticed that an IT person in the place she was visiting was acting strangely toward her.
Finally, someone asked her if she had run her unusual name in Google image lately. She hadn't, but, when she did, she was horrified to find photos of her breast augmentation online with her name. She told Bruntrager that she had agreed that her photo could be used for the doctor's website, but with the clear condition that her name would not be used.
"All of the actions of Defendant, Dr. Koo, were careless and reckless and performed in complete disregard of the law and the rights of the plaintiff," Bruntrager wrote in the lawsuit. All of the women are identified only as Jane Doe in the lawsuit to protect their privacy.
Koo is being charged with invasion of privacy, including counts of unreasonable publicity, breach of fiduciary duty and wrongful commercial appropriation and exploitation of plaintiff's image and medical information.
"I am very sorry that this internet problem occurred," Koo wrote in a statement. "I have apologized personally to the patients involved. I sincerely regret that the protective mechanisms supposedly set up by the web host failed and allowed this problem to occur."
She said the patients gave permisson for unidentifiable before-and-after photos to be posted on the website and that the appearance of the names was unintentional and due to a technical issue.
Koo acknowledged the issue in a letter to patients dated June 14. In the letter, she writes that the client may have been involved in the "inadvertent disclosure of some of your health information." She describes how the names were not on the actual image, but could be viewed if by hovering over the photo.
She extends her "sincere apology" and writes, "As soon as I learned of this situation, I immediately investigated the circumstances and took all possible steps to arrange for the removal of these images from the internet as soon as possible."
Bruntrager said he sent his first letter to Koo's office to notify her of the issues six weeks earlier. He sent the letter on April 28 with a request to cease and desist and immediately take the images down. He said it took a week for the image to come down and only the image of his first Jane Doe was removed.
Bruntrager began searching for the 20 or 30 other women whose names he could see online with the photos and building a larger case. So far, six of the women have filed lawsuits and Bruntrager said a seventh is in the process of doing so.
It was not until mid-June that all of the images were taken down, according to Bruntrager. He concedes that he doesn't know how the images were posted and that it could have been the mistake of a secretary or assistant, but maintains that he does know that they were not taken down immediately.
"I don't know what happened to get them up, but I know what happened when we tried to get them down," Bruntrager said. "Yeah, they're down now, but it's the Internet. How do you know they won't come back or that they're not on some computer geek's thumb drive who will put them online again in the future?"
Forensic investigators are working to track the images and make sure they are not saved anywhere.
Bruntrager wrote in the lawsuit that his clients "suffered shame, humiliation, embarrassment, anxiety, nervousness, loss of sleep and interference with her enjoyment of life, all of which will continue into the future."
The clients are seeking monetary damages from Koo, but no court dates have been scheduled yet.