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.
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.