An invasion-of-privacy lawsuit in San Diego that has already established legal precedent causing news organizations throughout the country to worry about their liability in routine crime reporting has been settled for an undisclosed sum in the final moments before trial.
The secret settlement between lawyers for the Los Angeles Times and a San Diego woman known in court documents only as “Jane Doe” was reached Thursday night after months of talks.
The lawsuit had its origins in the 1981 rape and murder of a San Diego woman whose body was discovered by a roommate while an intruder was still in the apartment.
The roommate, identified by name in the San Diego County edition of The Times, later charged that the newspaper had effectively identified her as a witness to the killing and made her a “walking target.”
Arguing that the paper had a legitimate right to publish the woman’s name, The Times sought unsuccessfully for several years to have the case dismissed, but suffered a series of legal setbacks.
The most serious came last year when California’s 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in a 2-1 decision that a jury should decide whether publication of the woman’s real name was newsworthy and necessary to the story.
That decision touched off widespread concern among First Amendment lawyers that the appellate court had set the stage for juries to take on the role of “super editors” in judging which details in routine stories of all kinds should or should not be published.
William A. Niese, vice president and general counsel of The Times, said Friday that the newspaper continues to have strong objections to the 4th District opinion. He noted, however, that the legal precedent would have stood even if The Times had won the case in trial.
“We’re going to have another inning somewhere down the road,” Niese said. One immediate remedy to the 4th District opinion, he said, could come when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a similar Florida case in which arguments are to be heard in the coming month.
San Diego lawyer Brian D. Monaghan, representing Doe, would not discuss terms of the agreement beyond saying that his client “was delighted to put it all behind her in this manner.”
“I can’t announce the settlement. I made a deal not to disclose it.”
Monaghan, as well as other lawyers knowledgeable in First Amendment issues, attached less importance Friday to last year’s 4th District opinion than previously because of the Supreme Court’s pending ruling in the Florida privacy case.
Woman Sues Paper
In that case, known as BJF vs. Florida Star, a Jacksonville, Fla., woman is suing the local newspaper for identifying her as a rape victim. Any decision by the Supreme Court is expected to supersede numerous lower court privacy rulings that often conflict with each other.
Citing the Florida case and other factors, Harold W. Fuson Jr., general counsel for Copley Newspapers, said Friday that the settlement of the “Jane Doe” case will have little impact on the law of invasion of privacy in California or elsewhere.
“First, it was a split decision with a very articulate dissent,” Fuson said. “Second, the precise facts are unlikely to arise again. Third, that decision may be washed away by Supreme Court action on Florida Star.”