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Filan: Lawsuit against Nancy Grace a long shot

Woman of missing boy committed suicide after appearing on CNN show

Grace faces legal problems
Nov 20: The family of a woman who killed herself after an interview with Nancy Grace is suing. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asks Media Analyst Steve Adubato how big a liability Nancy Grace is for CNN.
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Susan Filan
Senior legal analyst

I spoke to the lawyer who represents Melinda Duckett’s family in their wrongful death lawsuit against Nancy Grace and CNN.  

When I first heard about the lawsuit, it sounded like a long shot to me. 

Whatever you think of Nancy Grace, and whatever you think of Nancy Grace’s interview of Melinda Duckett, and whatever you think of CNN for airing the taped show after Ms. Duckett committed suicide, to say that Nancy Grace killed Melinda Duckett or is responsible for her suicide is a stretch.  

Then I read the lawsuit for myself, and still couldn’t see how the plaintiffs can prevail.   So I called up the plaintiff’s lawyer and asked her what she was thinking.  I wanted to see if I could be convinced they had a case.  I asked her how in the world she was going to prove that Nancy Grace “killed” Melinda Duckett?  But I didn’t quite phrase it that way.  I asked how is she going to prove her case.   What about causation?

In order for this suit to prevail, the plaintiffs have to prove causation; they have to prove that “but for” Nancy Grace’s interview, Ms. Duckett would not have taken her own life.  Or in other words, it was because of Nancy Grace’s interview that she killed herself.   Put another way, the actions of Nancy Grace ultimately led to Melinda Duckett’s death. 

A jury may think that the interview wasn’t nice or went too far or was mean-spirited, but to conclude that the interview was the sole and proximate cause of her suicide is going to take quite a bit of persuading. Does that rise to the level of wrongful death?   And a jury may think it was in poor taste, or callous of CNN to air the interview after her suicide, but does that rise to the level of “intentional infliction of emotional distress?”

I asked what kind of facts the plaintiffs could introduce at trial to prove their case?   Kara Skorupa, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers told me that the family is going to be able to testify as to what Melinda Duckett said prior to taking her own life and that will be “pretty compelling as to how she was after the Nancy Grace interview and before she took her own life.”

When I asked her about the alleged tort of “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” Skorupa explained that the family was traumatized by watching the interview on television just a few hours after the death of their child.   I asked her why they watched it, noting that they have free will and could have turned off the television.  Skorupa’s answer was that, like with a train wreck, they just had to watch.  Averting their eyes was not an option. 

Skorupa says there are no leads on Melinda Duckett’s two-year-old son, Trenton, and that no one at this point knows whether he is dead or alive.   She went on to say that the families seem to think he is alive, as do the police.  Although, as with any child abduction case, the odds of the child being alive decrease as time passes.  

When I asked Skorupa what if it turns out that Melinda Duckett did kill Trenton, to my amazement her reply was that it wouldn’t make any difference to their case.   Nancy Grace would still be liable, she said.  Grace has to be held accountable for her actions, regardless of whether Ms. Duckett murdered her son or not.  

Trenton’s father is being sued as well.  A lot of money has been raised in his name and the family wants an accounting as to what the father has done with it.   Who helped raise all this money?  Nancy Grace, of course, brought so much publicity to this case that there has been a huge outpouring of support from the community and the nation.

Ms. Grace, in the same suit, is both the angel and the devil.  But whatever happened in Melinda Duckett’s life prior to her one hour with Nancy Grace, all that happened thereafter is Nancy Grace’s fault, according to the law suit.

Ironically, Kara Skarupa says she is not doing this for the money.  She is doing it completely pro bono, free, and will not receive any money from any settlement or judgment.   She said she is doing it because she thinks it is the right thing to do.  She is righting a wrong, Nancy Grace’s wrong, and CNN’s wrong.

Nancy Grace and CNN may have thought they were doing the right thing, too, or maybe they were just in it for the money.  Whether motivated by a search for the truth or the almighty dollar, the blame game seems like a losing game in this lawsuit.

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