Like Richard Heene, father of the now-infamous "balloon boy," Jim Sikes, the financially-strapped runaway Prius driver, stepped eagerly into the spotlight after his bout of "unintended acceleration." What similar consequences await Sikes if this turns out to be a hoax?
Technically, if it does turn out to be a hoax, Jim Sikes would be more like Richard Heene, the father of the "Balloon Boy," but whatever, the argument and the outcome still ring true. What Sikes'll find, just as they quickly discovered, public attention easily turns into public scrutiny. The big tip that the Heene family was perpetrating a hoax occurred after the Balloon Boy himself said "We did it for the show" on a Larry King Live appearance the family booked.
Sikes hasn't appeared on Larry King's show — yet, but he did hold a press conference where he asked for a new car. That's not the only place he's looking at showing up on the air. A document obtained by Jalopnik reveals that representatives for Sikes have actually been in contact with producers for Larry King Live, The Ellen Degeneres Show and other media outlets (us included!).
In the end, the Heenes were charged with making false reports and trying to influence a public servant, a felony and a misdemeanor, respectively. They plead guilty and there was limited jail time — 90 days for Richard Heene and 20 days for his wife — with both receiving eight years of probation. The judge in the case also barred them from making any money off the incident during their probation.
It could have been worse for them. We contacted David Lane, the attorney who represented the Hennes, who told us "Making false statements to the feds is a crime punishable by up to 5 years in prison under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001."
Criminal issues aren't the only concerns here for Sikes if it's discovered he committed fraud. Should anyone fake such an incident, there are numerous people who could seek damages from the perpetrator of the fraud including dealership or the manufacturer. Even fellow owners of the vehicle could sue for lowering resale value of the Prius.
CBS's infamous "60 Minutes" piece on the Audi 5000 and reports of sudden acceleration, which later turned out to be rigged, encouraged a lawsuit from owners against Audi claiming the controversy hurt their resale value.
As of yesterday, representatives of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were still evaluating the car and CHP told us today they're just happy everyone is safe. If the car is discovered to have malfunctioned we know Sikes has the number for Larry King, and should something else happen we know he's retained legal counsel to act as his press representatives.
Hat tip to TTAC for making the balloon boy connection in our minds!