Invasion of Privacy in California
Under California law, there are generally four different types of invasion of privacy causes of action:
- Public Disclosure of Private Facts
- Intrusion into Private Matters
- Misappropriation of Person’s Name or Likeness
- Portraying a Person in a False Light
In the following paragraphs, we will lay out the elements of these causes of action, providing examples for clarity.
Public Disclosure of Private Facts
The defining factors of Public Disclosure of Private Facts are: (1) public disclosure of a (2) private fact, (3) that would be offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person, and (4) that is not a legitimate public concern or interest. See Catsouras v Department of Cal. Highway Patrol (2010) 181 CA4th 856, 874, 104 CR3d 352.
To deduce what is defined as a legitimate public interest or concern and what is not, courts have stated that “the publicity ceases to be the giving of information to which the public is entitled, and becomes a morbid and sensational prying into private lives for its own sake, with which a reasonable member of the public, with decent standards, would say that he had no concern.” Virgil v Time, Inc. (9th Cir 1975) 527 F2d 1122, 1129. So, morbid and sensational eavesdropping or gossip serves no legitimate public interest and is not deserving of protection. Catsouras, 181 CA4th at 874.
It may be difficult to distinguish what facts are private and whose disclosure could be deemed in violation of this tort. You may want to ask yourself the following to help make the determination:
- Is the fact newsworthy?
- Is the fact widely known?
Examples of Public Disclosure of Private Facts
The case of Catsouras v Department of Cal. Highway Patrol (2010) 181 CA4th 856, 104 CR3d 352, involved a public disclosure of private facts over the Internet. In a case involving a young woman who was decapitated in an automobile accident, the two officers investigating the case took photos of the victim and later circulated them to friends on Halloween, for “shock value”. The court found that the impact of the dissemination of these images on the relatives of the deceased met the requirements of (181 CA4th at 870):
- The dissemination of private facts
- A disclosure that would be offensive to reasonable persons
- The absence of a legitimate public concern
Intrusion into Private Matters
The elements of intrusion into private matters are (Miller v National Broadcasting Co. (1986) 187 CA3d 1463, 232 CR 668):
- An intentional intrusion, physical or otherwise
- into plaintiff’s private life, seclusion or solitude
- that would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person; and
- it is the cause of an adverse effect on the plaintiff.
While the factors of this tort may seem clearcut, defining each element can often be more difficult. Due to this, most cases seeking to prove Intrusion Into Private Matters tend to be fact-specific rather than precedent driven.
Examples of Intrusion into Private Matters
- In Miller v National Broadcasting Co. (1986) 187 CA3d 1463, 232 CR 668, a television camera crew was covering a story about paramedics who administer life saving techniques. In filming, without permission, they entered the home of a man who had suffered a heart attack that ended up being fatal. The television station used portions of the film in a “mini-documentary” about the paramedics. 187 CA3d at 1469. The court held that “reasonable people” could perceive the camera crew entering the plaintiff’s husbands bedroom “at a time of vulnerability and confusion occasioned by his seizure as ‘highly offensive’ conduct,” establishing an essential element of invasion of privacy by intrusion. 187 CA3d at 1484.
- In Sanders v American Broadcasting Cos. (1999) 20 C4th 907, 85 CR2d 909, the plaintiff claimed invasion of privacy by intrusion when a reporter, posing as a coworker, secretly recorded the plaintiff’s workplace interactions. The plaintiff prevailed with their claim. In their appeal, the court reversed the judgment, stating that because coworkers were in earshot of the conversations, the plaintiff had no reasonable expectation for privacy. The ruling was reversed once again by the Supreme Court, who found that the claim for intrusion was valid, maintaining that a plaintiff need not expect complete privacy for them to state a cause of action. That plaintiff did not have an action for violation of Pen C §632 did not necessarily bar him from a common law action for intrusion. 20 C4th at 924.
Portraying a Person in a False Light
Portraying a Person in a False Light entails (1) the Defendant’s dissemination of information (2) that may be false or erroneous (2) that places plaintiff in a derogatory and false light and (4) that would be offensive to a reasonable person.
It is difficult to infer from cases that involve Portraying a Person in a False Light that a publicized claim, that may hold truth, could still present a false impression of the plaintiff. In these scenarios, the information, even if factual, might still be misleading as they may lead to an incomplete or selective portrait of the plaintiff.
Examples of Portraying a Person in a False Light
In M.G. v Time Warner, Inc. (2001) 89 CA4th 623, 107 CR2d 504, published reports of a coach of an athletic team who was convicted of child molestation also embedded a photograph of a Little League team previously coached by the convicted child molestor. “may be able to prove a ‘false light’ claim. The ‘false light’ tort applies, if at all, to the players who were not molested and, secondarily, to the two assistant coaches.” 89 CA4th at 636. This was because “the article and the program could reasonably be interpreted as reporting that some or all the players in the photograph had been molested.” 89 CA4th at 636.
Misappropriation of a Person’s Name or Likeness
Misappropriation of a person’s name or likeness is the unwarranted unauthorized publication of that person’s name, photograph or likeness that causes an injury. Hence, the elements of cause of action for tort of misappropriation of a person’s name or likeness are (Eastwood v Superior Court (1983) 149 CA3d 409, 417, 198 CR 342) :
- Appropriation of a person’s name or likeness;
- to the defendant’s advantage, commercially or otherwise;
- without the plaintiff’s consent; and
- causing injury to the plaintiff.
Example of Misappropriation of a Person’s Name or Likeness
In Melvin v Reid (1931) 112 CA 285, 291, 297 P 91, plaintiff had previously worked as a prostitute and had been tried and acquitted of murder. After the acquittal, she “became entirely rehabilitated, lived an exemplary, virtuous, honorable and righteous life,” and “made many friends who were not aware of the incidents of her earlier life.” 112 CA at 286. After years had passed, the defendants made a film based on the plaintiff’s life using her real maiden name and and advertising the film as “the true story of the unsavory incidents” in her life. 112 CA at 286. For the plaintiff, the backlash included friends turning on her and exposure to “obloquy, contempt, and ridicule, causing her grievous mental and physical suffering.” 112 CA at 286. The court ruled that the use of a person’s life story as material for a motion picture “is in itself not actionable,” noting that many of the incidents “appeared in the records of [plaintiff’s] trial for murder, which is a public record, open to the perusal of all.” 112 CA at 290. Moreover, the court ruled, there is no “property right in the story of one’s life.” 112 CA at 292. However, the use of the plaintiff’s “true name in connection with the incidents of her former life in the plot and advertisements” found to be “unnecessary and indelicate, and a [willful] and wanton disregard of that charity which should actuate us in our social intercourse and which should keep us from unnecessarily holding another up to the scorn and contempt of upright members of society.” 12 CA at 291.