Woman sues L.A. County after gouged-eyes hospital photo goes viral

By Veronica Rocha, Los Angeles Times

A woman is suing the county after a nurse at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, shown in 2008, allegedly shared a picture of the woman's eyes gouged with pencils. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
A woman is suing the county after a nurse at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, shown in 2008, allegedly shared a picture of the woman’s eyes gouged with pencils. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

The photograph of a woman’s eyes gouged with pencils was shocking enough. But even more so, her attorney says, is the fact that a nurse at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center violated her privacy and shared the image — an act that eventually led to it going viral online.

As a result, the patient, whose name is not disclosed in court documents, has suffered anxiety over fears that people will figure out that it’s her in the photograph, which has been viewed more than 192,000 times, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

“It’s a tragedy that a nurse sworn to protect their patients would ever do something like this,” her attorney Douglas Johnson said.

The woman and her conservator are suing the county, as well as two people — Joshua Shivers and his mother, Linda Araujo Shivers — who are accused of being behind the distribution of the photograph.

Johnson believes the photograph was taken without the woman’s knowledge by a nurse at the county hospital, where she was admitted 2½ years ago after attempting to kill herself by stabbing the pencils into her eyes.

He said the nurse, who has not been identified, shared the photograph with a nephew, who then shared it with Joshua Shivers.

He then allegedly used his mother’s computer on July 20 to post the photograph on a “shock” website, according to the lawsuit. From there, Shivers allegedly went on a social networking website to announce and link to the post, writing “I finally made it in life!!! Please check out my shiz.”

Meanwhile, the woman, who is now blind, had no idea that her photograph had gone viral after it made onto several websites and online forums, including Reddit.

It wasn’t until after she tried to relaunch her life — receiving psychiatric treatment, attending college and learning Braille — that she found out about the photo, sending her back into a depression, according to the lawsuit.

Johnson said he and his client didn’t know whether the county had taken any actions against the nurse.

Neither Linda nor Joshua Shivers could be reached for comment Wednesday.

David Sommers, a spokesman for Los Angeles County, did not say whether any  disciplinary action was taken as a result of the alleged leak, but noted that officials generally do not comment on personnel matters.

Either way, he added, the copyright to the photo would be owned by the county, not the websites on which it appears.

With that in mind, Johnson said he sent a letter to the county as soon as they found about the photo’s existence, pleading with officials to demand that the websites remove the image. But he never got a response and the photo remains online, Johnson said.

“They had the opportunity to mitigate the harm to her,” he said.

That may be true for some photographs, but once an image as graphic as pencils-in-the-eyeballs is posted online, it’s hard to remove it, said Howard Bragman, vice chairman of reputation.com, a website aimed at protecting the reputations of individuals and businesses online.

“You just can’t make it go away,” Bragman said. “It’s too graphic.”

Some Internet search engines, he noted, reward websites for gory and salacious photographs that generate thousands of clicks.

“It’s something you have to live with,” Bragman said. “Once they’re out there, they’re out there.”