I came across an unusual case recently filed by a Chicago Police Officer in the Circuit Court of Cook County of the State of Illinois. The case is a warning for any professional service provider looking to use “case studies” in an advertising campaign.
The police officer claims in his suit that American Addiction Centers and Krurapp Communications defamed him and violated his right to privacy. The case arises from an advertisement placed in a magazine called Illinois Cops.
According to the suit, in 2005, the police officer visited with a counselor provided by the Chicago Police Department as part of an Employee Assistance Program. The police officer continued with therapy until 2010. A therapist named Robert Morrison spoke to the police officer about his issues and reviewed the officer’s file. Morrison assured the police officer he would not disclose any of the confidential information revealed in the course of treatment.
Morrison later took a job with American Addiction Centers. In April 2014, AAC ran an advertisement in Illinois Cops magazine. The ad featured stories recounting the struggles of AAC patients. One of the stories provided details about a police officer getting drunk on St. Patrick’s Day and leaving his gun on a table. The officer’s friend accidentally shot himself with the gun, leaving him in a vegetative state. The ad went on to detail the police officer’s arrest, his alleged alcohol abuse and his “latent feelings of homosexuality.”
While the ad did not identify the police officer by name, the details provided left little doubt about who it concerned. In his lawsuit, the police officer contended that the “highly specific” facts were known by family, friends and members of the police department. The suit seeks more than $400,000 in damages.
The case highlights some important points. First, a plaintiff may bring a defamation or breach of privacy suit even if the publication doesn’t use the person’s name. The question is whether the publication identifies the plaintiff. The more details, the more likely it is that the plaintiff is identified, whether or not the name is mentioned.
But perhaps the more important point is that professional service providers should be very cautious when using actual case studies in an advertising campaign. Lawyers, for example, cannot reveal information relating to the representation of client, unless the client gives informed consent. While it’s tempting to demonstrate expertise by highlighting past successes, privacy and ethical issues come into play.
The defendants in this suit may wind up learning a very expensive lesson. Like $400,000 worth.