Florida Court Sides with Bob Saget's Family, Issues Injunction Against Authorities
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Florida Court Initially Sides with Bob Saget’s Family in Lawsuit to Prevent Authorities from Turning Investigation Records Over to Media

 

Left to right: Aubrey Saget, Bob Saget, Kelly Rizzo, Lara Saget.

A Florida judge issued a temporary injunction Wednesday, granting Bob Saget’s family’s request to block the release of investigatory records on an emergency basis. The family of the late comedian and actor who famously played the role of Danny Tanner on Full House, filed a lawsuit in Florida state court against county authorities Tuesday, seeking to block the release of records from the investigation of Saget’s sudden death last month in a Florida hotel room.

The lawsuit is not one in which the Saget family seeks compensation for any past wrongdoing. Rather, it takes a preventative posture, asking the court to issue an injunction against investigative authorities, ordering them not to release records in response to impending public records requests.

Saget, 65, was found dead in his hotel room on Jan. 9. Authorities then conducted an investigation into the circumstances of the Full House star’s death. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Joshua Stephany, chief medical examiner for Orange and Osceola counties, said that Saget’s death was an accident and that no drugs or alcohol were involved. Saget’s family stated publicly that his death had been caused by head trauma. After conducting an autopsy, Stephany prepared a report that attributed Saget’s death to a significant blow to the head, writing “It is most probable that the decedent suffered an unwitnessed fall backwards and struck the posterior aspect of his head.” Saget was also reportedly COVID-positive at the time of his death.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Saget’s widow, Kelly Rizzo, and Saget’s daughters, Aubrey Saget, Lara Saget, and Jennifer Saget. Their ]six-page complaint sought an injunction that would prevent the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office from providing any videos, photos, or other records that may have been created or obtained during the investigation surrounding the actor’s death.

The complaint alleged that “certain news or media outlets have filed or plan to file public records requests” and that some of the records made in the course of the investigation “graphically depict Mr. Saget, his likeness or features, or parts of him.”

Under the law, the plaintiffs had the burden of convincing the court that they will suffer irreparable harm without an order protecting the confidentiality of investigatory records. Plaintiffs asserted in their complaint that public release of records would cause them to “suffer irreparable harm in the form of extreme mental pain, anguish, and emotional distress.”

Judge Vincent S. Chu agreed with Saget’s family during this preliminary phase of the proceedings, writing the following in a three-page order granting a temporary injunction:

Specifically, the Court finds that Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm in the form of severe mental pain, anguish, and emotional distress if the requested temporary injunction is not granted, that Plaintiffs have a clear legal right or interest in the Protected Records as the surviving spouse and children of Mr. Saget, that Plaintiffs have no adequate remedy at law should the Protected Records be released, and that the public interest is served by the entry of a temporary injunction to allow the Court adequate opportunity to weigh Plaintiffs’ legitimate privacy interest against the public’s claim for disclosure.

Emotional distress resulting from the unwanted publication of death-investigation records is precisely what Vanessa Bryant, widow of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and mother of Gianna Bryant, claimed to have suffered in her ongoing lawsuit against L.A. County. In that case, the county has admitted that graphic photos showing the scene of the fatal helicopter crash that killed nine people were improperly shared among first responders. Vanessa Bryant sued for damages, arguing that although the photos were not disseminated to the general public, she suffered emotional harm as a result of knowing the highly personal images were in unauthorized hands.

A key difference between the cases is that Bryant has the burden of proving that her emotional distress was caused by the photos being improperly shared — a potentially difficult hurdle in that it requires a court to tease out which distress was caused by the photos and which was caused by the tragic loss of her husband and daughter. The Saget family’s lawsuit, by contrast, is focused on avoiding harm as opposed to compensating for it. Therefore, the plaintiffs argued hat harm was likely to happen in the future without court intervention, not that it has already occurred.

The Saget plaintiffs must clear a significant hurdle, however, in that they seek to indefinitely prevent disclosure of public records sought in a routine, legal manner by press. The defendants commented on just this aspect of the lawsuit in an email to Law&Crime on Wednesday.

In response to Law&Crime’s request for comment, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said of the case, “While we are sensitive to the family’s concerns about the right to privacy, that must be balanced with our commitment to transparency, compliance with the law, and the public’s right to know.”

Brian Bieber, an attorney representing the Saget family, provided the following statement to Law&Crime Wednesday via email saying, “The facts of the investigation should be made public, but these materials should remain private out of respect for the dignity of Mr. Saget and his family.”

“It’s very simple – from a human and legal standpoint – the Saget family’s privacy rights outweigh any public interest in disclosure of this sensitive information,” Bieber continued.

In an email to Law&Crime Wednesday, the District 9 Medical Examiner’s office offered its condolences to the Saget family, but declined to offer further comment on the pending litigation.

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated from its original version to include comment from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

[image via Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The Scleroderma Research Foundation]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos