(CNN) -- A federal appeals panel has tossed out a lawsuit against Hustler magazine brought by the family of a slain professional wrestling personality, a case testing privacy concerns and the competing right to publish "newsworthy" material.
The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta vacated a jury's $19 million punitive judgment aimed at the publishers of the men's magazine, which featured old nude photos of Nancy Benoit, killed nearly five years ago by her husband, wrestling superstar Chris Benoit. The couple's young son also was slain in the family's Georgia home.
At issue was whether the constitutional right of privacy indirectly referenced in the 14th Amendment trumps the First Amendment protections of the media and publishers in this "right-of-publicity" dispute.
"Because there was overwhelming evidence that LFP (publishers of Hustler) reasonably and honestly (albeit mistakenly) believed that the photographs were subject to the newsworthiness exception to the right of publicity," the judges wrote in Tuesday's ruling, "we conclude that no reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that punitive damages were warranted in this case."
The original lawsuit was brought by Maureen Toffoloni, whose daughter, Nancy Benoit, had posed nude for a photographer more than two decades ago. Toffoloni claims that her daughter, who was known by the wrestling monikers Woman and Fallen Angel, had asked immediately after the shoot to have the photos and video destroyed and believed that photographer Mark Samansky had done so.
He later sold stills from the video to Hustler, a men's magazine founded by Larry Flynt that publishes racy material. The photos were published in the March 2008 issue.
The murders had occurred the previous summer. At the center of the crimes was Chris Benoit, a Canadian-born athlete who worked for several professional wrestling circuits, including the popular World Wrestling Entertainment. In 2000, he married Nancy Sullivan, a Florida native who had become a well-known wrestling manager after her time in the ring. Their son, Daniel, was born earlier that year.
Police say the crimes occurred over a three-day period in June 2007 at the Atlanta-area home of the Benoits. Investigators concluded that Chris Benoit, 40, first bound his 43-year-old wife and strangled her. The 7-year-old boy was then drugged and strangled. Benoit then committed suicide by using a weight machine to hang himself. No concrete motive was ever established.
CNN reported at the time that doctors found testosterone, painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs in the body of Chris Benoit, according to Georgia's chief medical examiner. Performance-enhancing anabolic steroids were later found in the home.
Weeks after the killings, a study of Chris Benoit's brain showed damage from "prior repetitive injury." His father, Michael Benoit, said on CNN's "Larry King Live" that a series of concussions from his high-flying moves in the ring were in part to blame.
Georgia has a law similar to ones in many other states recognizing the right to privacy against "the appropriation of another's name and likeness ... without consent and for the financial gain of the appropriator." That would include "a private citizen, entertainer, or a public figure who is not a public official" like a legislator.
The three-judge appeals court panel said Toffoloni's lawyers could not prove Hustler employees were in knowing violation of the state law. "A defendant (Hustler) operating under an innocent mistake cannot be held liable for punitive damages," the judges concluded.
Lawyers for Flynt said they were pleased.
"The case highlights the difficulties publishers can face trying to identify the lines between news, entertainment and commercial speech," said Derek Bauer, a lawyer with McKenna Long and Aldridge, representing Flynt.
"I think the opinion strikes a careful and thoughtful balance between the reality that federal judges -- who are unelected -- have the power to decide what is or is not legitimately news the free American public is entitled to learn, and the need to protect the press from disproportionate punishment when such decisions are made after a story is already published," Bauer said.
A court ruling three years ago had favored Benoit's estate, saying that a "brief biography" of Nancy Benoit and her murder accompanying the nude photos did not represent a "newsworthy article."
"The photographs published by (Flynt) neither relate to the incident of public concern conceptually (the murders) nor correspond with the time period during which Benoit was rendered, against her will, the subject of public scrutiny," the previous court wrote. "Were we to hold otherwise, (Flynt) would be free to publish any nude photograph of almost anyone without their permission, simply because the fact they were caught nude on camera strikes someone as 'newsworthy.' Surely that debases the very concept of a right to privacy."
The U.S. Supreme Court later refused to accept an appeal from Flynt and the photographer, despite the legal backing of several media organizations.
In a brief filed in support of Hustler, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the earlier ruling "makes no sense, as it goes well beyond the photographs that appear in magazines such as petitioner's to affect all news-gathering."
The group noted that other courts have long recognized a broadly read "newsworthiness" standard for commercial media and that such specific "dissection" of content-based stories and pictorials by judges would cripple editorial decision-making by all news outlets.
A jury had awarded Toffoloni $125,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $19.6 million in punitive damages. A federal judge reduced that punitive award to $250,000. Both sides appealed, prompting this week's ruling.
Benoit's estate now has the option of again asking the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved and decide the larger constitutional questions.
The case is LFP Publishing Group (doing business as Hustler Magazine) v. Maureen Toffoloni, as administrator and personal representative of the estate of Nancy E. Benoit (11-12922).