A federal agent who accidentally shot himself during a videotaped drug education presentation in Florida is pressing forward with his suit against the government, urging a federal appeals court to find the public disclosure of the video marked an invasion of privacy.
The plaintiff, Lee Paige, wants the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn a ruling in December that terminated the suit. Paige said in the complaint [.pdf], filed in Washington’s federal trial court in April 2006, that the disclosure of the video harmed his reputation. The court picked up the appeal earlier this week.
Paige, a former professional football athlete and undercover narcotics agent, was stationed in the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Orlando office at the time of the shooting. The incident happened in April 2004 at a community center in front of 50 children and their parents. At the time, Paige, who regularly delivered motivational speeches, was talking about gun safety.
“I am the only one in the room professional enough, that I know of, to carry this Glock 40,” said Paige, who then, almost immediately after, accidentally shot himself in the leg. A person in the room videotaped the presentation and captured the shooting.
Within a year, the video started making rounds on Internet sites and was widely broadcast on national television programs. Paige maintains the DEA had the only copy of the video and that he never agreed to have it released.
Government lawyers argued in the trial court that Paige failed to show intentional or willful conduct on the DEA’s part.
Paige’s attorneys, including Ward Meythaler of Tampa’s Merkle Magri & Meythaler, allege a DEA agent with animosity against Paige leaked a video, a little more than four minutes long, to the public. The identity of the person who disclosed the video remains unknown despite a two-year internal DEA investigation, according to court records.
“In order to prove [the government] acted willfully and intentionally, it is essential that Plaintiff identify the source of the disclosure,” Senior Judge Jack Shanstrom of Montana federal district court wrote in his ruling in December 2010, granting summary judgment in favor of the government. (In April 2009, the case was assigned to Shanstrom from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of Washington.)
Shanstrom noted that journalists reported on the shooting within days. The incident “was therefore open to the public eye, and cannot form the basis of liability for invasion of privacy,” the judge said.
“Given that the incident occurred in a public forum, in front of fifty parents and children while [Paige] was on duty at a DEA sponsored presentation and involved a public shooting incident, the Incident was a matter of public concern,” Shanstrom wrote in his 20-page ruling [.pdf].
The judge dismissed Paige’s claim the shooting was “highly offensive,” one of four elements a plaintiff must prove to win on a tort claim of disclosure of private facts.
“[T]here is no doubt that the incident is an embarrassment to both [Paige] as well as the DEA,” Shanstrom said. “However, ‘highly offensive’ matters generally relate to the intimate details of a person’s life, sexual relations and other personal matters and does not generally include the present situation.”