Death scene photos posted on the web did not subject coroner to liability

Werner v. County of Northampton, 2009 WL 3471188 (3rd Cir. October 29, 2009) (Not selected for official publication).

Plaintiff’s son died in the family home. No one seems to know for sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Even Plaintiff gave conflicting statements to the court — in his complaint he said it was not suicide, but in a later-filed brief he said it was.

Do not cross this line and I mean it.

In any event, on the day the son died, the coroner came to the house to take pictures. Somehow the coroner’s son got a hold of the photos and posted them on the web with a caption “There is no better way to kill yourself.”

Plaintiff sued the coroner under 28 U.S.C. 1983 which, among other things, gives citizens a cause of action when their rights are violated by someone acting under the law. Plaintiff claimed the coroner committed a due process violation of Plaintiff’s liberty interests in his reputation by allowing the photos to be posted.

To succeed on his liberty interest claim, Plaintiff was required to satisfy the “stigma plus” test. The district court dismissed the complaint, finding Plaintiff’s allegations did not meet this standard.

A statement that is “stigmatizing” under this test must be (1) made publicly, and (2) false. In this cause, the court found that the death scene photos were the relevant statement. But there were no allegations in the complaint that the photos themselves were “false.” (What the court was probably saying here is that the photos had not been Photoshopped or otherwise changed in a way to make them not accurately portray the scene.)

The court made a fine distinction in the process of dismissing the case. In response to the motion to dismiss, Plaintiff argued that the thrust of his argument was that the website falsely suggested his son committed suicide. But the court found otherwise, carefully looking at the allegations of the complaint which, for example, said that the photos “fueled the false impression that the Plaintiff’s son committed suicide.”

There were no allegations that the photos themselves were the false statements. But what about the caption, “[t]here is no better way to kill yourself,” you ask? Though the opinion does not address this point, one is left to conclude that that language could not be attributed to the defendant coroner, since it was his son that posted the photos, and not himself.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Fabio Beretta under this Creative Commons license.

In New Hampshire, your landlord has to give you free* cable

Lally v. Flieder, 986 A.2d 652 (N.H. 2009)

Hey, let’s watch HGTV and get some ideas for the apartment! It’s not like we have to pay for it or anything.

Anyone who has ever been a landlord will think the New Hampshire Supreme Court may have lost its mind. Those who like TV and broadband access a lot may think otherwise.

Awesome apartment with guitars that kick even more ass, yo.

Here’s the story.

A tenant told his landlord that he wasn’t going to pay rent anymore. So the landlord sued for unpaid rent and to get possession of the apartment back. Six days later the landlord disconnected the cable service. Turns out that was a no-no.

The nonpaying tenant countersued the landlord under a New Hampshire law that provides:

No landlord shall willfully cause, directly or indirectly, the interruption or termination of any utility service being supplied to the tenant including, but not limited to water, heat, light, electricity, gas, telephone, sewerage, elevator or refrigeration, whether or not the utility service is under the control of the landlord, except for such temporary interruption as may be necessary while actual repairs are in process or during temporary emergencies.

The trial court ruled in favor of the landlord, finding that cable service was not a protected utility and therefore by disconnecting the service, the landlord had not engaged in unlawful self help.

The tenant sought review with the New Hampshire Supreme Court. On appeal, the court reversed, finding cable service critical to the notion of “habitability.”

The court looked to the language of the statute and found cable service to be like the utilities specifically mentioned. The court observed that the specified utilities “all pertain to the habitability of a dwelling or a person’s well being.”

Right. In the middle of a brutal New Hampshire blizzard, nothing will keep you warm like a hearty dose of the Kardashians. And who doesn’t think the right to surf for porn is every bit as essential to a happy life as not having raw sewage backing up in your kitchen sink.

Apparently the members of the court really like watching TV and surfing the web using a broadband connection:

Modern cable television also pertains to the habitability of a dwelling and a person’s wellbeing. Indeed, many people access essential telephone service, the Internet, news information and entertainment by way of cable. Thus, the unlawful termination of a tenant’s cable television service would be a means of accomplishing a self-help eviction-the very evil the legislature meant to deter.

For these reasons, the court found that the landlord broke the law when it discontinued the nonpaying tenant’s cable service.

*Until the court kicks your ass to the curb.

Apartment photo courtesy Flickr user Jordan Roher under this Creative Commons license.

Relationship status and the law: it’s complicated

Online statements by mother were critical evidence in paternity case

Watermeier v. Moss, 2009 WL 3486426 (Tenn. Ct. App. October 29, 2009)

Under Tennessee law a man can petition the court to determine that he is the father of a child born to a woman who is married to someone else. (Better make sure there is good security in the courthouse parking lot!)

The court will consider a petition filed more than 12 months after the child’s birth untimely if : (1) the mother was married and living with her husband at the time of conception, (2) the mother and her husband “remained together” through the time the petition was filed, and (3) both the mother and her husband file a sworn statement saying the husband is the father.

Petitioner Watermeier asked the court to determine that he was the father of a child born to Appellee, a woman married to someone else. The woman and her husband opposed the petition. The parties did not dispute that she lived with her husband when the baby was conceived. The woman and her husband also both filed purportedly sworn statements that they were the parents of the child. The troublesome issue was whether the husband and wife had “remained together” through the time the petition was filed.

There was no dispute the two had separate residences. But they were not divorced and they testified they had no intention of getting divorced. In any event, the court found that the two had not “remained together” as provided under Tennessee law.

Among the important pieces of evidence the court relied upon in determining whether the two “remained together” were postings that the mother had made to an online dating service. On different occasions she had listed herself as “separated” and “divorced.” The court took these statements to “demonstrate that this is not an intact marriage and the parties have not ‘remained together.'”

So saying that “it’s complicated” might be an understatement, don’t you think?

Photo courtesy Flickr user debaird under this Creative Commons license.

Domain name not tangible property that could satisfy judgment

Palacio del Mar Homeowners Assn., Inc. v. McMahon, — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2009 WL 1668294 (Cal. App. 4 Dist. June 16, 2009)

A California state court entered a $40,000 judgment against defendant McMahon in favor of plaintiff homeowners association. The homeowners association tried to collect the money from McMahon, seeking a “turnover” of property McMahon owned. Among the items the homeowners association sought was the domain name, registered in the name of McMahon’s wife.

The trial court permitted the domain name to be turned over to the homeowners association to satisfy the judgment. McMahon sought review with the California Court of Appeal. That court reversed and vacated the turnover order.

The court gave several reasons for reversing the lower court. The most interesting reason, however, dealt with the very nature of domain names. The provision in California law allowing turnover of property limits itself to tangible property that can be “levied upon by taking it into custody.” Looking to the case of Network Solutions, Inc. v. Umbro International, Inc., 529 S.E.2d 80 (Va. 2000), the court held that a domain name registration is not property, but merely supplies the intangible contractual right to use a unique domain name for a specified period of time. Even if the registration were property, it was not something that could be taken into custody.

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