CompuServe Inc. v. Cyber Promotions, Inc.
United States District Court, Southern District of Ohio, 1997.
962 F.Supp. 1015.
Prosser, p. 74-78
Facts: Cyber Promotions sent spam to CompuServe customers. CompuServe sued under the theory of trespass to chattels, saying that Cyber Promotions is “intermeddling” with CompuServe’s servers.
Issue: Can an online service prevent a company from sending unsolicited e-mail?
Rule: Trespass to chattels occurs when the defendant intrudes upon the plaintiff’s property such that damage results.
Analysis: The defendants say that only physical dispossession or interference is required for trespass to chattels to lie. The court argues that physical dispossession is only one of several ways a chattel can be interfered with. The court points out that the defendants interference with CompuServe’s computers caused actual harm to the company and its customers.
Conclusion: The court grants the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction against the defendants.
Notes and Questions
1. If I had seen Glidden in my Prosser, Wade, and Schwartz Torts casebook in law school, maybe I would have remembered it, but I don’t think it would apply. The court in Glidden was using evidence of one tort as a defense against another. If Cyber Promotions was suing me for a tort which they suffered while spamming my servers, I would argue, like Szybiak, that I can’t be found guilty of a tort because the injury occurred while Cyber Promotions was engaged in another tort. If Glidden did come to mind, it would remind me that I must prove that my client suffered actual damages in order to recover on their trespass to chattels claim.
2. The standard set down in this case is that trespass to chattels may lie for sending unwanted e-mails if the value of the computer equipment involved is diminished. The first case of the disgruntled employee would seem to fit this pattern, because presumably sending so many e-mails would affect the value of the computers housing the company’s e-mail system. The damages that could be collected would probably be miniscule, especially if the company involved is not primarily in the Internet business. It would be pretty far fetched, however, for an individual user to prove actual damages due to spam e-mails from Cyber Promotions. The typical home user does not handle volumes of e-mail that would actually slow down their computer or affect other activities with it. Anyway, at best, the person could recover the entire value of their computer, and with court costs and the opportunity cost of their time and everything else, it would be a rather unwise suit.