Friday, June 20, 2003 Print This | Email This     

Harsh reality: Unwitting traveler takes 'Candid Camera' to court

By Laura Barcella, Court TV

(Court TV) —

"Okay, where's the candid camera?" Philip Zelnick demanded on June 15, 2001, when an airport security official in Bullhead City, Ariz., instructed him to climb atop an authentic-looking, but phony, X-ray scanner machine (though identical in appearance to scanners reserved for carry-on luggage, the fake did not emit real rays).

It seemed fishy, but Zelnick complied. By the time the security guard (actually "Candid Camera" host Peter Funt) barked his trademark "Smile! You're on 'Candid Camera!'" the last thing Zelnick wanted to do was smile — instead, he wanted to sue.

In a suit filed against Funt, "Candid Camera," the Pax television network, the airport and the Mojave Country Airport Authority, Zelnick, 35, claims he incurred bruises and bleeding after becoming stuck in the faux scanner. According to his lawyer, Andrew Jones, Zelnick's thigh was pinched in the machine, forming a red, fist-sized "raspberry." His leg was also punctured by a pen inside his pocket.

"It wasn't a deep wound," Jones told Courttv.com. But "anxiety, distress, and humiliation" were after-effects of Zelnick's experience.

Zelnick is seeking an unspecified amount in damages for battery, negligence, false imprisonment, misrepresentation, and infliction of emotional distress. Jones hesitated to speculate about the trial's outcome. "I am hoping for a verdict that will be fair to my client," he said.

During the trial, slated to begin Monday in the Los Angeles Superior Court, Jones plans to call Funt as a witness, as well as members of the television preproduction crew and airport staff who he asserts "were well aware of" the prank before it took place.

Six other unsuspecting travelers took a trip down the conveyor belt that day. None, aside from Zelnick, suffered any injuries, and "Candid Camera" broadcast the stunt (sans Zelnick footage) as planned.

To Zelnick and his lawyer, the ill-fated gag was a classic example of reality TV gone wrong.

"This was forcing someone to do something he didn't want to do," said Jones. "It was an attempt to humiliate [Zelnick] openly, so that people could laugh at him on TV, for personal profit and gain."

Lawyers representing the show could not be reached for comment, but in a statement released on CandidCamera.com, the company had a very different take on the incident. Responding to Zelnick's complaint, the statement asserts that, although a bruise was visible on the man's thigh after he emerged from the machine, "no blood whatsoever was seen by anyone at the airport."

In response to a New York Times article alleging that host Peter Funt "did not express particular sympathy" for Zelnick, the company expressed a "relative lack of sympathy for a legal action that seeks to exaggerate and alter the facts of the incident." Exaggerated or not, Zelnick's complaint against "Candid Camera" — a 54-year-old dinosaur of reality TV— is, according to its Web site, the first the show has incurred.

But Zelnick is not the first unconsenting player in a staged TV stunt, and his complaint is not unique for the genre.

In February 2003, Kara Blanc of Los Angeles filed a suit for severe emotional damage against the Sci-Fi Channel, home of the Shannen Doherty-hosted series "Scare Tactics." While Blanc was on her way to a swanky Hollywood party, the show sent an "alien" (actually an actor in a monster costume) to accost her. The creature feigned an attack on Blanc's two companions, who were in on the joke (and later slapped with the lawsuit as well). The intent was to scare the wits out of Blanc, and catch her fear on camera. It worked.

Jill Mouser filed suit against CBS in January 2003 after being injured in a stunt for a reality TV pilot — which never aired — entitled "Culture Shock." Held upside down in a contraption called the "harness of pain" for 40 minutes, Mouser's complaint alleged that she endured shock and long-term suffering.

And in April 2002, James and Laurie Ann Ryan sued MTV producers and actor Ashton Kutcher for a hidden-camera hoax in which a phony dead body was planted in the couple's Las Vegas hotel bathroom. The prank was intended as fodder for a Kutcher-hosted MTV series called "Harassment," which the actor once described as "guerrilla 'Candid Camera.'" It recently debuted in a celebrity-oriented incarnation as the hit "Punk'd."

As for Zelnick, his lawyer hopes that taped footage of the fateful scanner ride, in which a grumbling Zelnick passes through the X-ray machine several times, will hold enough evidence to sway Monday's courtroom. According to Jones, "the segment speaks for itself."