Google has settled – by paying $1.00 – a lawsuit brought by a Pittsburgh couple unhappy at having a photo of their home included on “Street View” feature. Each side claimed victory after a stipulated consent judgment brought this novel litigation to an end.
Street View is a service on which Google posts 360-degree views at the street level of many U.S. cities. The service permits visitors to take virtual walks through neighborhoods. The pages are created with images generated by Google drivers who pass through neighborhoods with digital panoramic cameras.
Aaron and Christine Boring, who live on a private road in an upscale Pittsburgh suburb, sued Google in 2008 alleging that the photos of their home were taken without permission from their driveway. Their complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Pennsylvania, alleged that the unpaved road they live on is posted with “Private Road” and “No Trespassing” signs. They sued Google for invasion of privacy and trespass, claiming the Internet company violated their rights by driving onto their property to take the photographs.
A federal magistrate judge had dismissed the Borings’ entire lawsuit, finding that as to the privacy claims, the photographs would not be offensive to a person of ordinary sensibilities. The judge also dismissed the trespass claim, on grounds that the Borings had not alleged damages recoverable under that tort.
In early 2010, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court only on the dismissal of the privacy claim. The appeals court noted that the district court’s “skepticism about the claim may be understandable,” but that under Pennsylvania law, damages are not an element of a trespass claim. According to the Third Circuit: “Here, the Borings have alleged that Google entered upon their property without permission. If proven, that is a trespass, pure and simple. There is no requirement in Pennsylvania law that damages be pled, either nominal or consequential.”
The appeals court therefore ordered that the Borings’ trespass claim go forward. But in language that no doubt guided the negotiations that led to the consent judgment on remand, the appeals court noted: “Of course, it may well be that, when it comes to proving damages from the alleged trespass, the Borings are left to collect one dollar and whatever sense of vindication that may bring, but that is for another day.”
On remand, a new magistrate judge – the judge who originally presided had died in the interim – brought the parties in for a conference. The result was a $1.00 consent judgment in the Borings’ favor, with each side to pay its own attorneys’ fees.
In a statement on his website, the Borings’ lawyer said he and his clients “worked hard and did a lot of good for the next mom and pop.” The lawyer called on Congress to pass legislation “to statutorily grant penalties, attorneys fees and costs to someone trespassed upon, since the courts do not have the power to do so.”
Google noted to the Associated Press that the consent judgment meant the plaintiffs’ finally acknowledged “that they are only entitled to $1.”
The Borings’ house no longer appears on Street View. A search on Google, however, will lead to other websites that still have a photo posted.