Victim of crash can sue TV show

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The Independent Online
IN A case that could chill media freedoms across America, a Californian woman has won the right to sue a television company that secretly taped her as she asked to be allowed to die in a car crash eight years ago.

The State Supreme Court in California ruled that Ruth Shulman, who survived but is now a paraplegic, is entitled to pursue in court a production company owned by the CBS network for featuring scenes from the car crash in a now defunct series called: On Scene: Emergency Response.

Ms Shulman, 54, was in hospital recovering from her injuries, several months after the accident, when she saw herself in the show.

Included was footage of her pleading with a nurse to be left alone to die. Unknown to her, the nurse was wearing a concealed microphone supplied by the television producers.

The court decision, limited in scope initially to cases within California, will worry the US television industry, which has seen a proliferation of so- called "Reality-TV" shows, including those depicting emergency responses to fires, crashes and police raids.

It could equally have consequences for news documentary and magazine programmes which have discovered the power of hidden-camera techniques to expose scams and their perpetrators.

The court justices specifically upheld the right of media organisations, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, to pursue individuals deemed to be part of a "newsworthy" story. They drew the line, however, at methods that could be considered "offensive intrusions".

It said: "The state may not intrude into the proper sphere of the news media to dictate what they should publish and broadcast, but neither may the media play tyrant to the people by unlawfully spying on them in the name of newsgathering."

Lee Levine, a lawyer for numerous news organisations that had filed briefs to the court in the case, welcomed the court's upholding of the First Amendment, but said that the remainder would have a "chilling effect on the use of reporting techniques".

"The uncertainty is going to have some effect, making the media more cautious than may be it ought to be," he said.