The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling found that a notorious death doesn't give publishers a blank check to publish any images they wish - including those not linked to a newsworthy event. Such a policy, the court warned, would mean that the entire life of any victim of a notorious slaying would instantly be open to public scrutiny.
Nancy Benoit's family filed a federal lawsuit against the Larry Flynt Publishing Group last year after the magazine published the photos of Benoit's wife. The lawsuit claims that the woman, a model and former professional wrestler herself, had asked the photographer to destroy the images immediately after they were shot about 20 years ago.
The magazine countered by arguing that the photos were part of a greater story on the life and tragic death on Nancy Benoit and that they helped tell the story of "the modest beginnings of Ms. Benoit's career."
A federal judge ruled in the magazine's favor in October 2008, dismissing the lawsuit and concluding that the magazine had the right to publish the photos in part because her death was a "legitimate matter of public interest and concern."
In reversing the decision Thursday, the three-judge panel ruled that while Benoit's death may be newsworthy, her nude photographs were not. It noted the article, which advertised "long-lost images of wrestler Chris Benoit's doomed wife," was brief and made only scant mention of her desire to become a model.
"These private, nude photographs were not incident to a newsworthy article; rather, the brief biography was incident to the photographs," Judge Charles Wilson wrote in the opinion.
The family's plight gained international attention after the wrestler, his wife and their son were found dead in their suburban Atlanta home. Police said Benoit, then a wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment, strangled his wife and son and then hanged himself.
Maureen Toffoloni, Nancy Benoit's mother, and Hustler attorney Paul Cambria could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
The decision sends the lawsuit back to the lower court for consideration.
Toffoloni has also recently filed a lawsuit against Dr. Phil Astin, the physician who prescribed Benoit steroids and other drugs. The complaint blames the drugs prescribed by the physician for the deaths.