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Suit up: A breakdown of the Amy Jacobson lawsuit

by Brenna Ehrlich
July 15, 2008

The lawsuit filed last week by former WMAQ-Ch.5 television reporter Amy Jacobson and her husband contains numerous complicated allegations against CBS Broadcasting Inc. and others, who she holds responsible for her loss of livelihood and emotional distress, among other legal claims. A long narrative preceding a list of nine counts is easy enough to parse. But the language of each count contains legal jargon that non-lawyers might find difficult to understand. The Medill News Service enlisted the help of media and libel lawyer David P. Sanders to sort it all out.

Without offering his opinions about the merits of the claims, Sanders explained the legal basis – in English – of each of Jacobson’s claims.

Jacobson was fired last year after a local CBS-owned station aired a video of the reporter wearing a bikini at the home of Craig Stebic, the husband of missing Plainfield woman Lisa Stebic. Jacobson said that she was reporting on the Stebic case at the time. She is suing CBS; president and general manager of CBS-2, Chicago Joseph Ahern; CBS-2 news director, Carol Fowler; CBS-2 reporter, Mike Puccinelli; CBS-2 reporter, Rob Johnson; Northwestern University assistant professor, Michele Weldon; and the Stebic’s neighbor, Tracy Reardon.

Count I: “Intrusion Upon Seclusion”

The suit alleges that Jacobson and her children, along with Craig Stebic and his family, “had a reasonable expectation of privacy when they were in the Stebic house and backyard.” The suit adds, “the backyard was only visible if one used a telephoto lens to zoom in.”

Sanders: “Intrusion typically relates to the methods by which information is gathered.… It doesn’t matter whether the information is ultimately published, or in what form it’s published or disclosed, because it focuses on the conduct to gather the information, as opposed to how the information is subsequently used…. [The plaintiff argues that what was] happening was not visible to the public without special means.”

Count II: “False Light”

The suit claims that CBS edited the tape in such a way that suggested a sexual relationship between Jacobson and Stebic, “juxtaposing an image of Craig Stebic putting his shirt on with one of Plaintiff Jacobson in her halter top and towel.” It further alleges that Weldon added to this portrayal by “making comments such as, ‘It’s going to make the audience and her colleagues question what else she has done’.”

Sanders: “False light is another of the branches of invasion of privacy and, in this instance, does require…disclosure of the information…. One of the elements of this tort is that the depiction would have to be something that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person…. The plaintiff also has to prove…that the defendant published this material—the allegedly false depiction—with knowledge of its falsity….

“I assume that the defendants would argue that just because they’re talking about her being in a bathing suit and having been there doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s having any kind of… sexual relationship with him…. [With respect to Weldon], one defense might be that some of the statements here are protected opinion and are not even factual and therefore cannot sustain a claim.”

Count III and Count IV: “Misappropriation for Commercial Use” and “Right of Publicity Act”

The suit also claims that the tape was “recklessly and maliciously” aired “because of CBS’ sagging ratings.”

Sanders: “Misappropriation for commercial use is intended to be where you use someone’s name or their likeness for commercial purposes, usually to promote a product One of the defenses to a commercial appropriation claim is that the person’s name and image was not used for commercial purposes—meaning to sell a product—but rather was used for news gathering.”

Count V: “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress”

The suit alleges that the defendants “intended their conduct to cause severe emotional distress” to Jacobson.

Sanders: “This tort is limited to … where the defendant engages in conduct that is extreme and outrageous as to go beyond possible bounds of human decency. But where the conduct in question is news reporting it’s particularly difficult for the plaintiff to build a claim because that does not typically fit within the category of conduct that is so extreme and outrageous as to go beyond all possible bounds of human decency.”

Count VI: “Defamation Per Se”

The suit claims Weldon, among others, defamed Jacobson. It cites the assistant professor as saying that while the reporter’s action was “not a heinous crime it erodes all of our credibility as journalists.”

Sanders: “What she’s basically claiming is that the statements in question injured her [reputation] in her profession and in her career…. [The defendants] may argue that these statements are protected opinion and were understood as such.”

Count VIII: “Tortious Interference with a Business Expectancy”

The suit states that Jacobson was fired “as a direct result of the edited videotape being aired on July 10, 2007.”

The suit also claims that Jacobson cannot get a job, stating: “One station executive told Plaintiff that she was ‘toxic’ in the industry.”

Sanders: “[These claims] are almost identical. The first one focuses on interference with an existing relationship,” (the loss of her job) “whereas the business expectancy talks about interference… in a perspective relationship” (getting a new job).

Count IX: “Loss of Consortium”

The suit also claims that Jacobson’s husband, Jaime Anglada, “was deprived of the financial support of Amy Jacobson, her companionship, her felicity, sexual relations and related losses.”

Sanders: “Loss of consortium is usually a claim asserted by family members claiming that they have been injured derivatively because of the injury to the wife…. Where you typically see that is in auto accident cases.”

The lawsuit has been assigned to Cook County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Budzinski and the parties are expected to appear in court next week, according to spokesperson for the Cook County circuit court clerk.