On Monday, a California court ruled that a woman whose plastic surgery photos surfaced online is entitled to compensation from the surgeon who performed her operation.
The Fresno Bee reports that Mandi Stillwell visited Fresno plastic surgeon Dr. Enraquita Lopez for a breast augmentation, tummy tuck, and breast lift in March 2013. Stillwell gave Dr. Lopez written consent to photograph her naked torso before and after the surgery, with the understanding that the images would be used to promote his clinic online, but the photographs would be anonymous.
But in August of that year, 39-year-old Stillwell says she learned out that her photographs were available online, after a man she met on a dating site found them by Googling her name. "I hold lots of anxiety, lost a lot of sleep, and cried a lot," she told the Fresno Bee.
Stillwell sued Dr. Lopez for emotional distress and lost wages, seeking $300,000 in compensation and saying that the photos appearing online proved that he'd been negligent in his duty to protect her patient confidentiality. Defending, Dr. Lopez's attorneys argued that the pictures had been uploaded accidentally, and removed within days when the clinic became aware of the error.
Now, a Fresno County Superior Court has awarded Stillwell $18,000. Settlements of this sort—based on the emotional distress caused by unauthorized naked photos leaking online—are commonly associated with revenge porn. But could Stillwell's case herald a new understanding in how we look at image-based sexual abuse?
"Image based sexual abuse is a term that encompasses all acts of sharing private and personal materials of a sexual nature against a person's consent, regardless of the perpetrator's intent and how these images were produced in the first place," explains Dr. Afroditi Pina, an expert in revenge porn at the University of Kent.
Though the compensation awarded for damages was significantly less than what was sought, Pina explains how the Fresno case could help to shift our understandings of image-based sexual abuse onto the very real, and often extensive, impact to the victim.
"Although this patient consented to their personal image being used for promotional material in an anonymized format, they clearly did not consent to the public display linking them to it, and as it was shown it was easily traced back to her. The doctor and their practice claim that this case was an instance of neglect on their part, but the consequences for this patient may have the same impact on her life as a similar act of malicious intent," Dr. Pina goes on.
And the case demonstrates the medical profession's obligation to safeguard the intimate information with which they're often entrusted.
"In a world in which an explicit image can go viral within minutes, causing immediate and in many cases irreparable psychological and reputational harm," adds law professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami, "it is inexcusable for those entrusted with intimate information not to take reasonable care to protect it."