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Nebraska court upholds dismissal of tanning salons’ lawsuit

August 9, 2019
A person enters the Palm Beach Tan tanning salon in Omaha, Neb., Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. The Nebraska Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a group of tanning salon owners, including the owners of Palm Beach Tan, who had claimed the Nebraska Cancer Coalition had defamed them and hurt their businesses with an anti-indoor tanning message. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
A person enters the Palm Beach Tan tanning salon in Omaha, Neb., Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. The Nebraska Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a group of tanning salon owners, including the owners of Palm Beach Tan, who had claimed the Nebraska Cancer Coalition had defamed them and hurt their businesses with an anti-indoor tanning message. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld the dismissal of a unique lawsuit brought by a group of tanning salon owners, who had claimed the Nebraska Cancer Coalition defamed them and hurt their businesses with an anti-indoor tanning message.

The business owners, who operated some 30 tanning salons in Omaha and Lincoln, sued in 2015 after the coalition launched its “The Bed is Dead” campaign, which includes a website and ads that link tanning bed use to skin cancer. The campaign makes such claims as, “There’s no such thing as a safe tan,” and “Tanning before age 35 raises your risk of melanoma by nearly 60%.”

The coalition cites information from the World Health Organization, the National Toxicology Program and other health organizations in yoking tanning bed use to increased cancer risk.

The lawsuit says the campaign not only defamed the salons, but violated the Nebraska Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

But the high court in its unanimous decision Friday agreed with a Douglas County District Court judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit last year, saying that a defamation claim requires more than general criticisms of an industry.

The trial judge rejected the salons’ defamation claims, noting that the Nebraska Legislature itself had relied on some of the same information the coalition had in passing a law to prevent those 16 and younger from using tanning beds without parental permission. The judge also pointed to a law requiring tanning salons to post warning signs stating, in part, that repeated exposure to ultraviolet light emitted by tanning beds can cause premature aging of skin and skin cancer.

The coalition’s statements “do not mention appellants or identify products or services of appellants beyond general statements on the risks of indoor tanning and tanning overall,” Justice Jeffrey Funke wrote.

The lawsuit appears to have been a unique approach by an industry that has mainly relied on its own ad campaigns to portray indoor tanning as safe and even healthy to county to growing opposition to tanning bed use.

“This is the first such lawsuit like this that I’m aware of,” said Robin Carlson, a Kansas City, Missouri, attorney for the Nebraska Cancer Coalition and two doctors also named in the lawsuit.

Phone messages left Friday for several attorneys representing the tanning salons were not immediately returned.

A statement from the American Suntanning Association said it’s disappointed in the court’s decision centered on the coalition’s campaign not mentioning tanning salons or its products by name.

“Science continues to confirm the many health benefits of sensible UV exposure,” the written statement said.

Carlson replied that the coalition is proud to defend its message.

“Its focus is on educating the public — particularly teens — about the risks of indoor tanning,” she said.

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