Talk-show host Jay Leno has scored a victory in upstate New York.
A joke on "The Tonight Show," in which Leno mocked a woman in a photograph allegedly sent in by her former employer, did not violate the state's privacy-right laws, the Appellate Division, 4th Department, has ruled.
Civil Rights Law §§50 and 51 must be "narrowly construed and 'strictly limited to nonconsensual commercial appropriations of the name, portrait or picture of a living person,'" the panel held in its per curiam decision, Walter v. NBC Television Network, 05-01646.
"Here, the use of plaintiff's photograph by the NBC defendants was not strictly limited to a commercial appropriation, and thus the use of the photograph does not fall within the ambit of those sections of the Civil Rights Law," the panel held.
According to news reports, on a November 2003 broadcast of the popular NBC late-night show, Leno used a photograph of Rochester, N.Y.-area woman Claire Walter in the "Headlines" segment of his program.
Leno displayed a card Walter alleged had been distributed by her former employer, co-defendant Dorschel Automotive Group, which features an unflattering, unsmiling image of Walter and the text, "Thanks from CLAIRE WALTER, your friendly Service Advisor," along with the dealership's name and phone number. When displaying the photograph, Leno said in a mock voice meant to be Walter's, "Want your car fixed?"
Walter initiated an action against NBC, Leno, "The Tonight Show" and Dorschel Automotive alleging violations of her right to privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.