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A Kentucky man is taking Netflix to court for defamation over the streamer distributing a documentary that allegedly falsely implied he was involved in a murder.
In the 2023 true crime documentary The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, a photo of Taylor Hazlewood is shown alongside a convicted murderer under audio saying “stone-cold killer” and captions stating, “You can never trust anyone.” He alleges that the images were taken without his knowledge from his Instagram “despite having no connection to any aspect of the Film.”
Hazlewood sued Netflix on April 10 in Texas state court, accusing the company of defamation and misappropriation of likeness or right of publicity. He seeks over $1 million and punitive damages.
The documentary centers on Caleb Lawrence McGillvary, who rose to viral stardom in 2013 when he saved a woman by bludgeoning her assailant with a hatchet — before he was convicted for the murder of an attorney in an unrelated incident. Hazlewood didn’t think much of the documentary when he learned that his photo was used even though he had no association with McGillvary. Then, he started getting messages from friends and coworkers.
“So something not so chill happens later in the documentary,” his friend texted him. “Your picture shows up again after he’s charged with murder and its just bad vibes.”
Another friend messaged: “Dude this is so weird but I’m watching this murder documentary and they start flashing a bunch of peoples pictures and I said that is Hazlewood. Did they steal your photo? How did you get on there?”
Toward the end of the film, a photo of Hazlewood appears as the narrator asks, “Is this a guardian angel or a stone-cold killer?” after a description of the “horrific and senseless” murder of McGillvary’s victim, and the film “pulsates with a menacing and dangerous mood,” the complaint says.
Hazlewood says he had no idea the documentary would show pictures from his personal Instagram of him posing with a hatchet. He says he’s suffered reputational harm, stress and anxiety because of the “constant fear of losing future employment or relationships because of people believing he is dangerous or untrustworthy.” As a respiratory therapist, he alleges that “reputation and character are of paramount importance,” especially since he’s “constantly being reviewed and judged by strangers for new employment” due to his contracts typically lasting three to six months.
“The use was not incidental,” states the complaint. “Instead, it was Netflix’s employees’ negligently searching for images of people holding hatchets to support their narrative.”
Raw, which produced the documentary, isn’t named in the complaint. The production company based in the U.K. known for documentaries also made Three Identical Strangers and American Animals. It didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
In March, a federal judge ruled that Netflix won’t have to face a suit brought by a retired police officer who accused the makers of the docuseries Making a Murderer of defaming him by accusing him of planting evidence. Though that case involved a public figure, the court found that editing choices, like music and graphics that allegedly imply improper conduct, can’t be considered to be defamatory statements.
To prove defamation, there must be proof that the defendant published a false statement. The pleading standard is higher for public officials, who must prove that there’s clear and convicting evidence that the defamatory statements were published with “actual malice,” or the knowledge that they were false, or with “reckless disregard” to the truth.
Apart from defamation, Hazlewood also argues that the unauthorized use of his photo constitutes false light invasion of privacy, which recognizes that all individuals have property rights in their name and likeness that are protected from commercial exploitation. He accuses Netflix of improperly profiting off of his picture.
Netflix didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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