One Nebraska town has made headlines after being accused of libel by one of its very own citizens. The city of Lincoln, Nebraska found itself in hot water after one woman sued the city and accused Lincoln’s Crime Stopper’s chapter of slander and libel.
It all started when Shayla Funk noticed that her image appeared on the Crime Stopper’s website. She was also featured on several local television segments, where she was framed as a thief, who was guilty of making fake ATM deposits and making withdrawals with a stolen credit card. It turns out that Funk was being incorrectly shown as a criminal, when it was all just a mistake. In addition to her image being used, the organization repeatedly referred to Funk as a “crook.” Apparently, the bank provided the wrong video to the police when they were investigating a string of crimes. The video, which was shown multiple times on various outlets, showed Funk using an ATM. However, she was not doing anything illegal. Instead, she was simply withdrawing money from her own account. The bank explained they sent the police the video by mistake because the security camera had the wrong time stamp.
The 26-year-old sued the city with claims that her reputation was severely tarnished. The jury sided with Funk and awarded her $75,000 in damages. However, Lancaster County District Judge Steven Burns ordered the city to pay Funk $259,000, in addition to the jury’s award. The judge also ruled that the city issue a retraction and an apology. This means that the city must publish a retraction on the Crime Stopper’s website, the Lincoln Police Department’s Facebook page and on the television station where the incorrect footage was shown. To make sure Funk is given the proper restoration to her reputation, the city must also provide 10 copies of the published retraction that Funk can use at any time she deems necessary.
Vince Powers, Funk’s attorney explained to the media after the official ruling that the payment and apology were important steps to helping his client regain her reputation as an outstanding citizen of the town.
Even though the case seems pretty open and shut, Lincoln’s City Attorney, Jeff Kirkpatrick said he was reviewing the judgement and may even consider appealing. While he admits the city made a mistake, he is quick to point out that the city learned a valuable lesson.
It is important to note that this original incident took place in April 2013. So, the impact of this mistake has followed Ms. Funk around for two years.
Funk explained to the media the video has caused severe damage and humiliation in her life. She eventually left her job after being placed on unpaid leave for three weeks after someone brought the video to her boss’ attention. Even now, she says people in her hometown joke about so-called criminal ways, by saying, “Hide your credit cards- Shayla’s here.”
While the ruling made huge legal waves, this isn’t the first time a city has been sued for libel or defamation.
Daniel Gibalevich, one of the leading Los Angeles’ personal injury attorneys, explained that libel cases are not unusual, but they are most commonly from a disgraced city official or a disgruntled employee who was offended by comments made by their colleagues.
“Most of the time, these defamation claims begin after someone makes remarks to local media,” Gibalevich explains. “It has become common for city officials sue their city because of remarks made to the media by colleagues. It is rare that a citizen is defamed by their city.”
There is also cases of disgruntled city employees, such as the case of a former Texas fire chief in Van Alstyne. Former Fire Chief Landon Smith sued the city of Van Alstyne after being put on administrative leave due to the city’s budget cuts. Basically, in Smith’s contract, it stated that if the department decided to let him go, they had to send him three months salary as severance pay. After explaining that he was being let go, they asked him to sign a separation agreement that would force him to waive the severance pay. He refused and was ultimately terminated for his refusal to sign. Apparently, the city went on to make certain comments to the local media that Smith did not like. Fed up, he decided to sue the city for defamation and wrongful termination. Unlike Funk, his legal battle continues.