State Rubbish Collectors Ass’n v. Siliznoff
38 Cal.2d 330, 240 P.2d 282.
Prosser, p. 47-50
Facts: Siliznoff was intimidated into signing notes by the threat of future physical force. The plaintiffs sued Siliznoff for collection of the debts, but Siliznoff said that he was not liable for them because he signed under duress. Furthermore, Siliznoff filed a counterclaim saying that he had been assaulted after a fashion. The defendant prevailed on the claim and counterclaim, and the plaintiffs appealed on the basis that there was no evidence of assault. They argued that assault involves only threats of immediate force rather than threats of future force.
Issue: Can someone be liable for an intentional tort if they violate only the mental and emotional well-being of another person?
Rule: The old rules state that the law will not protect individuals from invasions of their emotional and mental well-being. However, the court cites a change in the law reflected in the Restatement of Torts that says there may be an action for infliction of severe emotional distress.
Analysis: The court recognizes a change in the direction of the law. It makes analogies to other well-recognized torts, saying that in the case of assault, battery, false imprisonment and defamation, mental distress will be the primary component of the injury. The court also counters arguments that allowing mental distress claims will lead to a flood of litigation. The court says that it is up to juries to decide if the mental distress was serious enough to be actionable.
Conclusion: The court upheld the verdicts for the defendant.
Notes and Questions
1. Assault does not lie because there was no threat of immediate harm. False imprisonment does not lie because the plaintiffs said they would beat him up later if he left the meeting now. Infliction of mental distress was rare in courts at the time both with judges and with attorneys.
2. This definitely expands the realm of intentional torts and could result in a big rise in the number of claims. I’m not sure that the comparison made—between how easily the jury can tell outrageous conduct versus physical harm from emotional harm—is relevant.
3. It seems like this tort is on shaky ground that has been made more solid over the years.
4. It sounds more reasonable to require some physical effect.
5. If you’re going to allow this tort, it seems reasonable to say the mental harm must be severe.
6. It looks like this tort widened, especially at the time of this decision, has narrowed somewhat sense, but could widen again.
7. I would guess that the “substantial certainty” requirement would be quite hard to prove, because mental consequences actions are far more capricious than physical consequences of actions.