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Atlanta-Lawyers representing a Georgia doctors’ group that used videotape of a woman’s emergency-room visit as part of a tort reform infomercial argued last week that their clients’ actions are protected political speech. The family of the now-deceased woman, Sarah Evelyn Blissitt, sued in September, alleging invasion of privacy. Lawyers for the nonprofit Doctors for Medical Liability Reform and the public relations firms hired to create the infomercial—Ackerman McQueen and The Mercury Group—argued before Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court Judge Rowland W. Barnes that the woman’s family should be barred from bringing claims against the infomercial’s producers by Georgia’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute. The defendants’ lawyer, Ronald T. Coleman Jr. of Atlanta’s Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs, argued that the suit involves the “type of core First Amendment activity” that Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute, Ga. Code Ann. � 9-11.11.1, is designed to protect. The statute generally protects political speech from being chilled by abuse of the legal system. The Blissitts’ attorneys, D. Brandon Hornsby and Albert M. Pearson III of Atlanta’s Moraitakis, Kushel, Pearson & Gardner, argued that the anti-SLAPP statute doesn’t apply because the suit isn’t targeting protected speech. Pearson said it’s aimed at invasion of privacy and the “unlawful conduct” used to create the video. Cameras in the E.R. The dispute dates back to Feb. 27, when Blissitt, then 76, was taken by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital of Atlanta for treatment of a spiral fracture to her tibia and fibula. Her husband and children met her at the hospital. That same day, a camera crew at St. Joseph’s was filming patients as they were brought into the emergency room, and Blissitt was one of those caught on film. The filming was part of a broader effort by Doctors for Medical Liability Reform, an organization that touts itself as a coalition of more than 230,000 medical specialists, to mount support for federal legislation aimed at reforming medical liability laws. The group’s campaign in Georgia included print and radio ads, as well as the 30-minute infomercial in which Blissitt appears. The first shot of the elderly woman appears in the 12th minute of the video as a team of five emergency workers lifts her from a stretcher to a hospital gurney. She is wrapped in blankets, and her mouth is agape and drooping, the effect of a mini-stroke suffered some time before the hospital visit. A little more than 30 seconds later, Blissitt is seen from a side angle being wheeled in on a stretcher. She is strapped down with an oxygen hose leading to her nose, and her head is propped up by at least three pillows. The infomercial, which contains footage shot at other Georgia hospitals, aired on both network and cable television. It argues for medical liability reform through interviews with doctors who have left their practices—or left Georgia—and through interviews with the patients they’ve left behind, in addition to the emergency-room footage. According to the complaint, Blissitt’s family noticed the film crew and asked what they were doing in the emergency room. Blissitt v. Doctors for Medical Liability Reform, No. 2004CV90693. The complaint says the crew told Blissitt’s family that it was filming an “in-house video, to show how the emergency-room team related with the emergency-room technician teams that were bringing patients to the hospital’s emergency room.” Blissitt’s family members never were told “the true purpose” of the filming, nor were they told that their mother had been filmed, the complaint says. Less than six weeks later, Blissitt died. Her son, Bob Blissitt, was watching TV on July 24 when he saw the infomercial. At last week’s hearing, Coleman said his clients deny making any misrepresentations to the family. He also produced what he called a consent agreement purporting to have given the camera crew permission to film Sarah Blissitt.

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