LINCOLN, Neb. — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld a nearly $260,000 judgment against the city of Lincoln and a local Crime Stoppers organization for wrongly accusing a woman of theft on television and online.
The high court rejected the city’s arguments that Shayla Funk was not entitled to the $259,217 in damages awarded to her by a jury last year.
Funk sued the Lincoln Police Department after her image from a 2013 bank surveillance video appeared on the Lincoln-Lancaster County Crime Stoppers website, accompanied with the words, “This young lady doesn’t look like your typical crook, but she is! She used someone’s stolen credit card.”
Police also featured Funk’s image and the claim that she’d made ATM withdrawals using a stolen card in two segments on local TV news.
But the bank had turned over video of the wrong person in the theft case. Even after the error was revealed and the police citation against her dropped by prosecutors, the images of Funk remained on the Crime Stoppers website.
Funk testified that she left her job for another after she was placed on unpaid leave for three weeks when someone reported the misleading video to her boss. Even years later in her hometown, she said, people still joke to, “Hide your credit cards — Shayla’s here.”
In its appeal, the city argued — among other things — that the lower court was wrong to find that the city acted recklessly or with malice and that Funk was entitled to general damages.
But the high court supported the lower court’s finding, saying there would have been no issue if police had taken a few steps to verify that the video they had been given depicted an unauthorized transaction.
“When a party making a defamatory statement takes no steps to investigate but relies entirely on information received from another without verification, he or she has not acted as a reasonably prudent person and lacks probable or reasonable grounds for making the defamatory statement,” Justice Max Kelch wrote.
The high court did reverse the lower court’s ruling that the city publish a retraction asserting Funk’s innocence, noting that Funk didn’t ask for a retraction or any other injunctive relief in her lawsuit.
Lincoln City Attorney Jeffrey Kirkpatrick said Friday that the city will “continue to be careful with Crime Stoppers.”
“We think it’s an important tool to gain information,” he said. “So, I don’t think we can afford to give up on it entirely.”
Funk’s attorney, Vince Powers of Lincoln, said his client has yet to receive an apology from the city or police for wrongly and publicly accusing her.
“The problem was, they took this good idea of a website to solve crimes and turned it into entertainment, where they use all this incendiary language to attract people to get hits on the website,” Powers said. “And they completely ignored the basic American concept of innocent until proven guilty.”
This story has been corrected to show that a police citation against Funk was dropped, not charges. She was not charged with a crime.