The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

State News

September 2, 2013

Lawsuit filed over wreck victim photos

LEWISBURG — The family of a Rainelle man who died in a traffic accident is suing an ambulance company and an emergency medical technician for allegedly circulating photos of the victim’s corpse.

The lawsuit in Greenbrier Circuit Court claims that Quinwood Emergency Ambulance Inc. violated the privacy of Jonathan Thomas’ family.

The Charleston Gazette reports that Thomas, 30, died last year when the United Parcel Service truck he was driving swerved off the road and into a home in Crawley. According to the lawsuit, Thomas lost control of the vehicle after being stung by a bee. It says EMT Angel Willis of Alderson used her cell phone to take photos — not for diagnostic or legitimate purposes — of the deceased driver.

The complaint describes the images as “unsightly, intrusive and outside the bounds of decency.” It alleges that the photos were later circulated through the community.

A woman who answered the phone at the Quinwood office said Monday that the company had no comment. A phone number for Willis could not be found.

According to the lawsuit, Willis and her husband — a driver for a funeral home — previously were accused of taking photographs of another man’s body and distributing it. Greenbrier County prosecutors tried to press charges, but an indictment charging them with conspiracy to commit disinterment or displacement of a dead body was later dropped, according to an employee in the Greenbrier circuit clerk’s office.

During this year’s legislative session, Delegate George Ambler, R-Greenbrier, introduced a bill that would have made it illegal to take photos of corpses, except for legitimate post-mortem examinations or criminal justice purposes. The penalty proposed would have resulted in a misdemeanor charge and a fine between $50 and $500. It failed 11-9 in committee.

Darla Thomas, Jonathan Thomas’ mother, said investigators told her family to keep silent when lawmakers were discussing the bill. Next year, she said, her family will be in Charleston to support the measure.

“I want them to put a face with the bill and let them know what it’s about,” she said. “I think people thought, ‘Doesn’t Charleston have bigger fish to fry?’ I think they thought this is some kind of crazy bill and thought, ‘Who’s taking pictures of dead people?’ I don’t think they realize this is an issue.”

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