Netflix is embroiled in a defamation lawsuit after a federal judge found that the streaming giant may have defamed a Kentucky man through the use of his Instagram photo in a true crime documentary. The documentary in question, “The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker,” allegedly implied the man’s involvement in a murder, even though he had no connection to the crime.
The Controversial Documentary
In the 2023 true crime documentary, “The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker,” Netflix showcased a photo of Taylor Hazlewood, alongside audio labeling him a “stone-cold killer” and captions that read, “You can never trust anyone.”
The documentary centered on Caleb Lawrence McGillvary, who became famous for saving a woman by using a hatchet to defend her from an assailant in 2013. However, he was later convicted of murder in an unrelated incident.
Hazlewood, who had no involvement in the crimes, found himself in a disturbing context due to the photo. His photo, where he was posing with a hatchet, was used in the documentary, creating an impression of sinister association.
The Lawsuit and the Defamation Claim
Hazlewood filed a lawsuit against Netflix in April, claiming that the use of his photos from Instagram, without his knowledge or consent, was defamatory due to the harmful context in which they were presented. He argued that the documentary falsely accused him of a crime.
U.S. District Judge David Godbey recently declined to dismiss the defamation claim, as he found that the mood and tone of the scene in which Hazlewood’s photo was used may have led viewers to believe he was involved in criminal activities. People who watched the documentary expressed concerns about Hazlewood, suspecting that he was somehow connected to the crimes depicted.
Netflix’s Argument and the Judge’s Ruling
Netflix attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed, asserting that the documentary did not explicitly accuse Hazlewood of any crime. The company argued that Hazlewood’s allegations relied on innuendo rather than direct accusations.
However, Judge Godbey ruled that Netflix had failed to investigate the context and ownership of the photograph before its use and hadn’t obtained Hazlewood’s consent. As a result, he advanced a claim for invasion of privacy against Netflix.
While the claim for misappropriation of likeness was dismissed, Hazlewood was given an opportunity to amend this aspect of the lawsuit by demonstrating specific commercial value associated with his likeness, such as reputation, prestige, notoriety, or skill.
In summary, Netflix faces a defamation lawsuit for its use of an Instagram photo in a true crime documentary that may have wrongly implicated a man in criminal activities. The court’s decision to advance the invasion of privacy claim highlights the potential consequences for streaming platforms when using individuals’ images in a sensitive and misleading context.