NEW YORK — A federal judge handed a legal victory yesterday to a woman who claims "Dateline NBC: To Catch A Predator" led her brother — a Texas prosecutor — to kill himself after camera crews and police officers showed up at his home in a sex sting.
In a scathing ruling, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin permitted a $105 million lawsuit to go to trial, saying a jury might conclude the network "crossed the line from responsible journalism to irresponsible and reckless intrusion into law enforcement." The case is Conradt v. NBC Universal, Inc.
Louis William Conradt Jr., an assistant prosecutor in Rockwall County, Texas, fatally shot himself after he was accused of engaging in a sexually explicit online chat with an adult posing as a 13-year-old boy, according to a lawsuit filed by his sister.
In the lawsuit, Patricia Conradt said NBC "steamrolled" police to arrest her brother after telling police he failed to show up at a sting operation 35 miles away.
NBC was working with the activist group Perverted Justice on the sting, in which people impersonating children established online chats with men and tried to lure them to a house, where they were met by TV cameras and police.
Chin said the lawsuit contained sufficient facts to make it plausible that the suicide was foreseeable, that police had a duty to protect Conradt from killing himself and that the officers and NBC acted with deliberate indifference.
In a statement, NBC News said: "We think the evidence will ultimately show that 'Dateline' acted responsibly and lawfully, and we will continue to defend ourselves vigorously. The judge's ruling was based solely on the plaintiff's version of the facts."
Bruce Baron, a lawyer for Patricia Conradt, said: "This decision shows no one is above the law, no matter how powerful."
Chin tossed out many of Patricia Conradt's claims but said her principal claims could proceed to trial.
In his ruling, Chin said the network "placed itself squarely in the middle of a police operation, pushing the police to engage in tactics that were unnecessary and unwise, solely to generate more dramatic footage for a television show."
Chin wrote that a reasonable jury could find there was no legitimate law enforcement need for a heavily armed SWAT team to extract a 56-year-old prosecutor from his home when he was not accused of any violence and was not believed to have a gun.
He said a jury might conclude it was done solely to sensationalize and enhance the entertainment value of the arrest.
"A reasonable jury could find that by doing so, NBC created a substantial risk of suicide or other harm, and that it engaged in conduct so outrageous and extreme that no civilized society should tolerate it," Chin said.
Before issuing his ruling, Chin said he reviewed a copy of the Feb. 20, 2007, episode. In her lawsuit, Patricia Conradt claims a police officer at the scene of the shooting told a "Dateline" producer: "That'll make good TV."