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Holloway v. Oxygen Media, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

January 7, 2019

ELIZABETH ANN HOLLOWAY, Plaintiff,
v.
OXYGEN MEDIA, LLC, and BRIAN GRADEN MEDIA, LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         As defendants frequently point out, and as courts regularly affirm, even the most deeply wounding conduct rarely gives rise to civil liability for the tort of outrage. Suffering offense from truly insulting conduct is sometimes an unfortunate fact of life, so the law understandably hesitates to impose money damages for causing emotional distress in the minds of others. But, in very limited circumstances, the law recognizes extremely egregious conduct that no person should be expected to endure without some sort of civil justice. This case plausibly presents such outrageous conduct.

         Twelve years after Natalee Holloway disappeared while on a high school trip to Aruba in 2005, Defendants Oxygen Media and Brian Graden Media tried to capitalize on the world's fascination with the tragedy. Defendants produced and published what they termed a six-part “true crime documentary” series entitled “The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway.” The series documented a so-called “unscripted” and “real-time investigation” of what happened to Natalee when she disappeared.

         But Natalee's mother, Plaintiff Beth Holloway, alleges that the series was not a “true-crime documentary” or a legitimate “investigation” whatsoever. Instead, Ms. Holloway contends that it was scripted and outrageous fiction produced and published at the expense of her severe emotional distress. In addition, she alleges that Defendants fraudulently procured her DNA in production of the series.

         Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Holloway's claims for fraud and the tort of outrage. The court will DENY the motion. As further explained below, Ms. Holloway has pled with particularity the fraudulent procurement of her DNA by plausible agents of Defendants. And she has sufficiently alleged facts showing a plausible claim for the tort of outrage.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss challenges whether a complaint contains “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief” as required by Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         Specifically, a defendant may move to dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The burden then shifts to the plaintiff to show that her complaint “allege[s] ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Adinolfe v. United Tech. Corp., 768 F.3d 1161, 1169 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

         For a claim to be “plausible on its face, ” it must contain enough “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). And the court accepts as true the factual allegations in the complaint and construes them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Id.

         But not all allegations can defeat a motion to dismiss. “[L]abels and conclusions” and speculation “will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. So, the court will only look at well-pled facts, and if those facts, accepted as true, state a plausible claim for relief, then the plaintiff will survive a motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         As the court must do on a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true the following well-pled factual allegations.

         Natalee Holloway disappeared on May 30, 2005 while on a high school senior class trip in Aruba. Print and broadcast media gave Natalee's disappearance “nearly unprecedented” and “round-the-clock” coverage. (Doc. 23 at ¶ 45). Natalee's mother, Beth Holloway, has worked tirelessly to find Natalee, but neither Natalee nor her remains have ever been located.

         A. The Series

         Defendants produced and published a six-part television series entitled “The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway” (the “Series”). The Series aired between August 19, 2017 and September 23, 2017. Defendants marketed the Series as an “‘unscripted' ‘real-time investigation' and ‘documentary' following ‘a new lead that could deliver justice for Natalee once and for all,' including ‘the specifics of what happened to her and the remains of her body.'” (Doc. 23 at ¶ 57).

         The Series followed Natalee's father and Beth Holloway's ex-husband, Dave Holloway, and his private investigator, T.J. Ward, as they investigated John Ludwick, the suspect who claimed to have exhumed and desecrated Natalee's remains in Aruba and asserted that he knew where Natalee's remains were buried.

         Ms. Holloway alleges that the Series and the “real-time” events that it depicted were actually scripted. She relies on the complaint in the matter styled Kramer v. Brian Graden Media, LLC, et al., No. 2:17-cv-5990 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 11, 2017), where the plaintiff, Edward Kramer, sought compensation for services he alleges that he rendered to Oxygen and BGM for the Series. (Doc. 23 at ¶ 62). Mr. Kramer asserted in that case that he created the Series as early as the fall of 2014. (Id. at ¶ 69). Mr. Kramer alleged that he created the plot, plans, scenarios, episode guides, and resolution for the Series; that is, he “scripted” the Series beforehand. (Id. at ¶ 64). In addition, Mr. Kramer alleged that the main characters in the series, even those depicted in the Series as unaware that they were being filmed, were paid participants. (Id. at ¶¶ 70, 74, 76, 79-80).

         As depicted in the Series, on March 19, 2017, Mr. Ludwick took his roommate, Gabriel Madrigal, to identify the grave site in Aruba where Mr. Ludwick claimed to have dug up Natalee's remains. But Mr. Ludwick could not find the grave site. (Doc. 23 at ¶¶ 86-87).

         Then, on April 6, 2017, Mr. Madrigal told Mr. Holloway and Mr. Ward that Mr. Ludwick would travel to Aruba again “to pinpoint the exact location and cooperate with the Aruban authorities in showing the exact location [of Natalee's remains] and hopefully solving the case.” (Doc. 23 at ¶ 90). But on Mr. Ludwick's second trip to Aruba, he again could not find the grave site. In addition, Mr. Ludwick could not identify the cave near his aunt's property where he claimed that he and another man burned Natalee's skull. Defendants then cut ties with Mr. Ludwick “because they believed the lead to have been false and unfounded.” (Id. at ¶ 94).

         But the Series then depicts a third visit to Aruba, this time filmed on Mr. Madrigal's cell phone and purportedly undertaken without Defendants' knowledge. Mr. Madrigal and Mr. Ludwick stated on the cell phone videos that they “returned to Aruba for a third time to ‘bring Natalee home' and because Ludwick knew where her remains are because ‘he kept [them] as a trophy.'” (Doc. 23 at ¶ 96).

         During this third search, within seconds of the men's arrival at Mr. Ludwick's aunt's house, Mr. Ludwick uncovered a Ziploc bag “from just beneath the ground surface” containing four bone fragments. (Doc. 23 at ¶ 100). According to Ms. Holloway, “[t]he Ziploc bag, supposedly buried for seven years, appears fairly new, clean, and in good condition.” (Id. at ¶ 101).

         The Series then shows more footage from Mr. Madrigal's cell phone on which Mr. Ludwick fails to identify the grave site with the rest of Natalee's remains. (Doc. 23 at ¶¶ 104-05).

         B. The Bone Fragments and Ms. Holloway's DNA

         Mr. Holloway and Mr. Ward traveled to Aruba to collect the bone fragments. Aruban authorities advised the men that the bones were animal remains. (Doc. 23 at ¶ 5).

         Defendants then delivered the bone fragments to their forensic expert, Dr. Jason Kolowski. Defendants told Dr. Kolowski that Mr. Ward recovered the bone fragments from a pet cemetery. Defendants did not disclose that Mr. Ludwick found the bones in a Ziploc bag without any corroboration. Dr. Kolowski later told Ms. Holloway that Defendants did not inform him of the true origin of the bones because he could have ...


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