Abused Girl Sues ABC for Over Filming of Her Beating by Step Father

A New York woman has filed in interesting torts case against ABC News over a “Primetime” segment called “Stepfamilies in Crisis.” On the 2006 segment , ABC showed Kyle Nelson, then 15, being held down and punched by her stepfather Joe Nelson. She is now suing the network for failing to intervene and invasion of privacy, among other torts.

Nelson claims that ABC could have stopped the abuse and further added to the injuries by showing her beating. She has sued ABC News; its parent corporation, the Walt Disney Company; ABC’s president, David Weston; news anchor Diane Sawyer; and producer David Sloan. Interestingly, she has also included three psychologists who worked with the “Primetime” special.

She eventually left the abusive household to stay with her maternal grandparents.

Part of the problem may be Nelson’s own voluntary media appearances. She appeared on Good Morning America four days after the show aired and was interviewed by Diane Sawyer, an anchor for “Primetime.” She said that she forgave her stepfatther.

Voluntarily engaging in media appearance undermines any privacy claims.
The teen said she did not condone her stepfather’s behavior but forgave him for the abuse.

She is seeking damages under eight counts including invasion of privacy and failure to report abuse.

One privacy tort is the publication of embarrassing private facts. This requires a showing that the disclosure was “offensive and objectionable” as disclosing something private. However, you can waive these rights and there is an exception for matters of public interest. Courts tend to be protective of historical or journalistic interests as in the case of Haynes v. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 8 F.3d 1222 (7th Cir. 1993). The plaintiffs claimed defamation and privacy invasion in a book written by defendant Nicholas Lemann entitled The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. The book covered the story of one woman’s life, Ruby Lee Daniels, including her relations with her ex-husband, Luther. The court ruled for the publisher despite the embarrassing content as a historical matter protected under the first amendment. There are critical differences here, but the first amendment looms large in such cases.

There is also the tort of intrusion upon seclusion. This tort is defined in the Restatement Second as covering “one who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.” Note there is no exception for the publication of public interest material. Once again, waivers may be an issue as well as the later publication in voluntary interviews.

Given her status as a minor at the time (making waivers difficult), this could prove very interesting to watch.

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4 thoughts on “Abused Girl Sues ABC for Over Filming of Her Beating by Step Father”

  1. I didn’t see the story. The subject matter of child abuse is clearly something that journalists should cover strongly and often. However, if ABC watched a man beat a child without interfering to protect the child and then also failed to report the abuse to authorities, that is disgusting. How would any of us like to be on the receiving end of a beating and have supposedly good people just watch without helping. That would be traumatic. Further, if the courts allowed this to happen without consequences, then we would be seeing more of it on TV and in movies. A real, pain inflicting, humiliating beating is not entertainment. The adults present should have acted.

    “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

  2. Commoner:
    Indeed, I did see that story. Bizarre case, but it does seem that there was grounds for the decision.

  3. I’m truly surprised it’s taken this long for the “reality” genre to start having problems such as this.

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