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Leverton v. Curtis Pub. Co.

filed: December 12, 1951.


Author: Goodrich

Before MARIS, GOODRICH and STALEY, Circuit Judges.

GOODRICH, Circuit Judge.

This case involves the extent of the right of privacy. Plaintiff had a judgment in the District Court. The defendant challenges both her right to recover and the amount awarded to her by the jury verdict.

The facts are simple and almost undisputed. The plaintiff in 1947, when she was a child of ten, was involved in a street accident in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. A motor car nearly ran over her. A newspaper photographer who happened to be on the spot took a photograph of the child being lifted to her feet by a woman bystander. The picture was dramatic and its effect was heightened by the fact that it was an action picture, not one posed for the camera.

The photograph appeared in a Birmingham newspaper the day following. Twenty months later it was used by the Curtis Publishing Company as an illustration for an article on traffic accidents, with emphasis on pedestrian carelessness, under the title, "They Ask To Be Killed" by David G. Wittels. The print was purchased by Curtis from a supplier of illustration material. Plaintiff claims that the publication of her picture this long after the accident in which she was involved, was a violation of her right of privacy.

What Law Governs?

The suit was brought in the federal court on diversity of citizenship only. We take our law, therefore, from the courts of the State of Pennsylvania. This is the kind of case where, if all the questions which could be pointed up by analysis were to be answered, we should find ourselves in a forest from which it would be pretty hard to escape. Where was the right of privacy invaded, for instance: Alabama where the plaintiff lived, Pennsylvania where the Saturday Evening Post was published, or every state in the Union to which the Post goes? If so, is there a separate lawsuit for each invasion? Does recovery in one action for one invasion preclude suit in some other state for another invasion?Because Pennsylvania has the "single-publication" rule in defamation, is the same thing true for invasion of privacy? Questions similar to this the court was compelled to face in Hartmann v. Time, Inc., 3 Cir., 1948, 166 F.2d 127, 1 A.L.R.2d 370. Fortunately, for judicial peace of mind, we do not have to face them here.

The reason we do not have to face them is because the authoritative material on the right of privacy has not developed so far that we are confronted, in the narrow problem this litigation involves, with a difference in law of the various states which would necessitate a choice, choosing one rule to be applied and rejecting another. The history of the development of this right is well-known to all students of Tort law. It began to be talked by name following the interesting article by Brandeis and Warren in 4 Harvard L.Rev. 193 (1890). It received full discussion in an opinion rejecting the view that there is a common law right of privacy, in Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Company, 1902, 171 N.Y. 538, 64 N.E. 442, 59 L.R.A. 478. But the New York decision has become the minority view. Courts which have had occasion to pass upon the matter have pretty generally accepted the right of privacy as an established part of Tort law. The Restatement states its existence as established. Restatement, Torts, ยง 867. Likewise have the writers in the law reviews, for whom the subject has been a prolific source of essay material.*fn1

But the outlines of the right and the privilege to invade it are still dimly marked. What we conclude in this case is our opinion of what a Pennsylvania court would do with the question. We must fashion our decision "from the materials at hand" without the benefit of an authoritative decision on the exact point involved in Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

Scope of the Question in This Case.

It is well to delineate with as much exactness as we can the very thing which we have here to decide. The defendant admits the existence of the right of privacy both generally and particularly under the law of Pennsylvania and Alabama.*fn2

The plaintiff, on the other hand, admits that the original publication in the Birmingham newspaper on the day following her accident, was not an actionable invasion of her right of privacy. This admission is well taken for, as pointed out in the Restatement, one who is the subject of a striking catastrophe is the object of legitimate public interest. This has nothing to do with waiver or consent, obviously. The result is the same as where one does waive his right of privacy by voluntarily getting into the public eye but the reason is different.

With the concession by the defendant that there is such a thing as a legally recognized right of privacy and with a concession by the plaintiff that there was no actionable invasion of that right by printing the picture of her traffic accident in the Birmingham newspaper on the day following the ...

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