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Christie Signs Law Inspired by Barnegat Accident Photo Case

Law will protect accident victims' privacy rights, sponsors say

When Cathy Bates was fatally injured in an automobile accident in 2009, her family was devastated. But it's what happened after the head-on crash on Route 72 in Barnegat that spurred a bill which was signed into law Wednesday, Aug. 8 by Gov. Chris Christie.

Bates, a 40-year-old Manchester woman, was killed Oct. 23, 2009. At the accident scene, it was discovered that a volunteer first responder took photos of her which were posted on Facebook before her family members had even been notified of what had happened.

"Instantly, it was on the Internet," said Diane Brown, Cathy Bates' sister. "It was hours before my mom even found out it was my sister."

"You assume that someone's common sense and integrity would come into play," said Brown. "We thought, 'They posted pictures on the Internet?' That's not right. Can't they be arrested?"

But there were no laws on the books prohibiting the posting of such images at the time. While the practice may have violated the protocol of the first aid squad, there would be no criminal or civil repercussions available in such a case.

Since the accident which claimed her daughter's life, Lucille Bates-Wickward, a resident of Stafford Township's Warren Grove section, and her family members have lobbied state lawmakers to pass a law prohibiting first responders from distributing photos or recordings of an accident victim without the victim's or family's permission.

"We asked for help in getting something passed so another family wouldn't have to go through this," said Brown.

On Wednesday, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Connors and Assembly members Brian Rumpf and DiAnne Gove (all R-Ocean) which made distributing such photographs or recordings illegal.

"The enactment of this legislation marks a significant achievement in protecting victims’ privacy rights by updating state law to reflect the realities of today’s rapidly expanding and evolving social media," the legislative delegration said in a statement Wednesday.

"Not surprisingly, many first responders we have spoken with on this issue were incensed and offended by what took place in the case of Mrs. Bates-Wickward and her family."

First responders present at the scene of a motor vehicle accident or other emergency situation to provide assistance, are prohibited from "photographing, filming, videotaping, recording, or otherwise reproducing in any manner, the image of a person being provided medical care or other assistance, except in accordance with applicable rules, regulations, or operating procedures of the agency employing the first responder," the law states.

The law also prohibits first responders from distributing any images of victims that are captured unless written permission is provided by the accident victim or the victim's next-of-kin. There are exceptions for certain law enforcement and insurance purposes, as well as in the case of a court order that forces the release of images.

Violating the law could earn a first responder six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, as well as the potential of being sued in civil court.

Brown on Wednesday afternoon expressed her thanks to the local legislators, as well as Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) and the "hundreds of people who wrote the governor" to get the law passed.

"People can make a difference and can change things," Brown said.

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