Showing posts with label damages. Show all posts
Showing posts with label damages. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Appeals court reviews fundamentals of multiple liabilities in remanding business tort case

A Massachusetts Appeals Court decision Friday reaffirmed the rule against double recovery, the finality of settlement, and other fundamentals in a business case of joint tortfeasors.  The case is a good refresher for law students and lawyers on multiple liabilities in tort.


A company sued its former secretary-treasurer and a tax consultant for breaches of fiduciary duty through fraudulent concealment, resulting in financial loss in excess of about $288,000.  The company president, a husband, and the former principal, a wife, were recently divorced, and the latter’s separation on both counts was settled upon a $50,000 payment.  The couple furthermore stipulated an allocation of about $40,000 for the purchase of the wife’s company shares.

The company prevailed against the tax consultant on default judgment.  However, the court determined that the terms of the settlement, and specifically the allocated share purchase, inclusively credited the company with the $288,000 of the wife’s liability.

Under widely accepted state doctrine of joint tortfeasor liability in American law, a joint tortfeasor at judgment is credited with the plaintiff’s past settlement against a departed joint tortfeasor.  The rule encourages settlement by encouraging a well bargaining defendant to settle out, while deterring needless litigation by respecting the common law maxim that “a party can have but one satisfaction for the same injury.”

In accordance with the doctrine, then, the trial court ruled that the plaintiff had been made whole, so would collect nothing more from the tax consultant, however negligent.

That was an error on the merits, the Appeals Court ruled.  “Settlements are motivated by a wide range of factors, some non-monetary, and may involve significant payments or no payment at all,” the court wrote.
Justice Desmond
[T]here are many reasons [the husband] could have agreed on behalf of [the company] to dismiss the complaint against [the wife].  To name just one, having in-depth knowledge of [her] financial status, [he] may well have concluded that [she] would be unable to pay any judgment against her.  In any event, it was clearly erroneous to conclude that the plaintiff had been made whole based on no more than (i) the mere existence of a settlement [on] multiple legal claims and (ii) hearsay assertions that a discount had been given.
The court remanded for the trial court to reassess the actual measure of credit against liability represented by the share allocation, thus the remaining liability owed to the plaintiff by the tax-consultant defendant.

The case is Custom Kits Co. v. Tessier, No. 19-P-503 (Mass. App. Ct. May 1, 2020).  Associate Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. wrote for a unanimous panel with Justices Wendlandt and McDonough.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Recent commentaries ponder privacy in license plates, history of animal identity

Two blog entries tangentially related to areas of interest of mine crossed my desk this week.

CC TV (Adrian Pingstone CC0)
Privacy law.  For The Volokh Conspiracy at Reason, UC Berkeley Professor Orin Kerr wrote about the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in Commonwealth v. McCarthy, No. SJC-12750, on April 16.  The Court considered the implications of automatic license plate readers under the Fourth Amendment, concluding that there are constitutional consequences, if not resulting in a violation of the defendant's rights in the instant drug case.  Kerr considers the case relative to the Supreme Court's 2018 cell-tower-location decision, Carpenter v. United States, and against the background of his own work on mosaic theory in privacy law (he's not a fan).  In a purely civil context, mosaic theory, born in the national security arena, has long been a key underpinning of personal privacy rights in their encroachment on the freedom of information, an accelerating conflict in the information age.  The commentary is "Automated License Plate Readers, the Mosaic Theory, and the Fourth Amendment: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Weighs In" (Apr. 22, 2020).

Peacock plumage (Jatin Sindhu CC BY-SA 4.0)
Animal law.  Evolution of animals at law was the subject of an Earth Day commentary for Legal History Miscellany by history Professor Krista Kesselring at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.  She traced the historical change in cultural and common law regard for animals from aesthetic adornment, to property of utility, to something, perhaps, at last, with intrinsic value.  The commentary is "Can You Steal a Peacock? Animals in Early Modern Law" (Apr. 22, 2020).  U.S. courts have evidenced a dawning recognition of animals as more than mere personal property, even in a civil context, moving beyond welcome developments in criminal anti-cruelty statutes.  The nascent trend is evident and needed especially in the area of tort damages, in which the valuation of a pet as an item of property fails profoundly to account for real and rational emotional suffering upon loss.  See furthermore the recent: Richard L. Cupp, Jr., Considering the Private Animal and Damages (SSRN last rev. Apr. 2, 2020).  HT @ Private Law Theory.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Oberlin case leaves no doubt, 'racist' accusation is capable of defamatory meaning; Koppel reports

An Ohio jury in June awarded $44m to a family-owned bakery that proved defamation by Oberlin College in a case of false accusations of racism by Oberlin students, supported by the college.  Now CBS Sunday Morning has excellent coverage from Ted Koppel.  How ever did Oberlin, a respected four-year institution of higher education committed to the liberal arts, jump on board with racism accusations without first checking the facts?  Unthinkable.


False accusations of racism or misogyny today are no less capable of defamatory meaning than accusations of child molestation or other crimes that shock the conscience.  There can no longer be any serious contention that such charges are immune from defamation liability because they are fair comment or because they do not necessarily expose a victim to hate, contempt, or ridicule in the community.

Forbes reported: "The jury initially assessed $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages against Oberlin, for a total of $44 million, but the judge cut back the amount to $25 million because Ohio law has caps on damages. The judge then tacked on $6.5 million in attorney’s fees bringing the verdict back up to $31 million."

The case is Gibson Bros., Inc. v. Oberlin College, No. 17CV193761 (Ct. Common Pleas Lorain County, Ohio, Sept. 18. 2019).  The Ohio trial court publishes only the docket online.  Oberlin appealed (filed Oct. 8, 2019), and the Gibsons cross-appealed (filed Oct. 18, 2019).  CNN has the initial complaint (filed Nov. 17, 2017).

Monday, September 16, 2019

Best friend of teen struck, killed by train may claim negligence without physical injury, appeals court rules

On a "zone of danger" theory, the Massachusetts Appeals Court last week reinstated the claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress by the teenage best friend of a girl struck and killed by an MBTA commuter train in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Fence gap in NECN coverage, Oct. 31, 2014.  More from WCVB below.
Be warned, video surveillance captured girls' screams. 
Thirteen-year-old best friends Kiandra Calderon and Jenaira Fuentes were crossing rail tracks in between their homes and shops, where they bought Halloween costumes.  The court recounted, "For most, if not all, of the ten years during which the defendant [Royal Park, LLC] has owned the property, there have been large holes and gaps in the fence through which adults and children pass on a daily basis in order to reach nearby shopping plazas and the Lawrence High School." On Halloween 2014,Jenaira was struck and killed by an MBTA train.  "Kiandra, who was not struck by the train, tried to perform life saving measures on her friend and then remained close by as rescue personnel unsuccessfully tried to save Jenaira's life."



Kiandra sued on two counts, first, for negligence under the Massachusetts child trespasser statute, and second, for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED).  The court recognized that the two claims were essentially the same, because the trespasser statute provided the standard of care for the NIED, and the NIED provided the alleged injury required by the trespasser statute.  According to the pleadings, Kiandra's suffering was so severe that it manifested physically, as NIED claims typically require at minimum, requiring medical treatment for "anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, night terrors, nightmares, diminished appetite and food intake, bouts of extreme anger, behavioral problems at home and school, poor educational performance, and self-harm."

Even so, NIED claims are typically disallowed in the United States.  Negligence, or foreseeable accident, is regarded as too thin a reed on which to hold a defendant responsible for the merely emotional suffering of another, in the absence of physical injury.  Imagine if every romantic breakup resulted in an NIED lawsuit.  Whatever tort reformers or foreign observers might think, the United States isn't that lawsuit crazy.

There are exceptions, though, to the no-NIED rule.  Massachusetts is among the states that have kept the door open for the occasional compelling theory of NIED, not rejecting the notion outright.  And there are exceptions that are widely accepted.  Courts throughout the states are willing to award NIED recoveries to plaintiffs who were in the "zone of danger" themselves, even if narrowly escaping physical injury, reasoning that the physical threat was sufficient to make emotional distress claims credible and verifiable.  A smaller number of states are willing to award NIED recoveries to a narrow class of bystanders, those who contemporaneously witness physical injury inflicted on a close family member.

Kiandra's counsel tried to bring her within the bystander category by pleading the closeness of the teens' best friendship; the trial court was not moved.  However, the Appeals Court held, the trial court failed to consider Kiandra's own position in the zone of danger.  The girls were walking the tracks together, and just one was struck and killed.  Pending further development of the facts, it looks like Kiandra was in much the same jeopardy as her friend (see the WCVB video above, but be warned, the audio tough to hear).  The court sharply distinguished bystander NIED recovery from zone-of-danger recovery.  In the latter case, the plaintiff is a direct victim of the defendant's negligence, not an indirect sufferer as witness, and need not prove a close family relationship.  The court reversed and remanded for Kiandra to pursue her day in court.

The case is Calderon v. Royal Park, LLC, No. 18-P-1014 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 10, 2019).  Vuono, Wolohojian, and McDonough, JJ., were on the panel.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Teachable moment in Torts:
'Complaint alleges mom with dementia dumped outside Long Beach healthcare facility'

National media this week picked up this story from CBS Los Angeles about a woman suffering from dementia who wound up on the street after what looks like a botched transfer between a hospital and her residential facility.  The victim's daughter filed a complaint with regulatory authorities, but so far has said she will not file suit.  As advanced or two-semester classes in U.S. tort law wade into the deep end of the pool this spring, this story invites analysis on a number of fronts.  Here are some questions to get the discussion going.



1. Does the victim, through her daughter, have any cause of action in common law tort?  Can the injury requirement be met for the general negligence tort? for recklessness?

2. Is there a breach of duty here that can support a business tort?  Are there damages recoverable in business torts?

3. Could this be actionable "negligent infliction of emotional distress" (NIED)? in some states?  Can you demonstrate balance in the elements of negligence to persuade a court that NIED here will not open the floodgates?

4. How does the victim's dementia affect the torts case?  Is she an eggshell plaintiff?  Could she have been contributorily negligent?  Can she have been both at the same time?

5. Could the outcome of the regulatory investigation affect proof or liability in a tort case?

6. Does any tort theory rest in the daughter as plaintiff on her own behalf?  Is there any way to plaintiff-bystander liability?

7. Low temperatures in Los Angeles in the last week were only in the 50s (F), but northern cities have been in the grip of below-zero record lows.  Suppose the victim had been outside in Chicago and suffered frostbite.  How does that change the disposition of her tort claims? her daughter's?

8. Further entertaining the idea that the victim suffered physical injury, can the defendant make dispositive arguments on duty? on causation?  What's the difference?  Could there be a "scope of liability" problem in the terms of the Third Restatement?

9. There are two healthcare facilities involved.  Could both be defendants?  Would both be liable?  Would liability be joint or several? apportioned? to what effect?



🌠 Coming this June from Carolina Academic Press!
The Media Method:
Teaching Law with Popular Culture

Edited by LSU Law Prof. Christine A. Corcos, @LpcProf, Media Law Prof Blog
With contribution on torts by yours truly

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Money can't redeem life, but don't think it doesn't help tort survivors


When my 1L Torts class studies wrongful death, I take the occasion to challenge the notion that money, based on quantified loss, is necessarily the best way to effect a liability award (cf. Prof. Andrew McClurg's gut-wrenching and classic Dead Sorrow).  Matthew R. Stevens, '21, posted the following on the class discussion board, and I think it makes a worthwhile complementary observation about tort awards in our age of debt and financial fragility.  Reprinted with permission.



Some Thoughts on Wrongful Death Damages
by Matthew Stevens – Friday, January 25, 2019

Professor Peltz-Steele discussed the idea of money damages in wrongful death actions, and their ability to make up for what was lost. He challenged whether they really made that pain any better, and whether a $1,000,000 award helps any more than a $500,000 award. I just wanted to share my thoughts on a possible argument that the monetary damages could help make up for what is lost.

The loss of a family member is surely nothing short of a nightmare. The impending depression, stress, and various other negative emotions can impact someone’s life in irrepressible ways. No earthly remedy could ever truly provide perfect relief for such a loss. I think it could be argued, however, that money is well suited to lessen the impact of the loss.

According to a Case Western study [reported here by CNBC], increased income can actually cause a “reduction in negative emotions” (CNBC, para. 6). Furthermore, the study also found that higher incomes could “reduce the incidence of serious mental illness” (CNBC, para. 6). It is important to note that the study is dealing with annual incomes, and not large lump sums of cash. The study also notes that the increase in happiness shows diminished returns as you reach upwards of $160,000 a year (CNBC, fig. 2). I think this can be reconciled by looking at the damages award as a lump-sum salary. For example, if a father at the age of 40 received a wrongful death damages award of $1,000,000, you could divide that award by the remainder years before retirement (25) to create a net increase in annual income of $40,000. That increased “income” could statistically reduce his negative emotions, and reduce the chances of serious mental illness. An award of $500,000 would surely help, but over time it would not have as big of an effect, only creating an extra $20,000 in annual income. This of course is not a fix-all, but it is certainly a start to fix the unfixable.

Moreover, on the other side of the coin, issues with money statistically causes large amounts of stress. An APA survey in 2014 found that “72 percent of Americans reported feeling stressed about money at least some of the time during the past month” (APA, para. 3). Furthermore, 22% experienced “extreme stress” over money in the past month (APA, para. 3). The study goes even further to explain the types of issues stressing over money creates, including avoiding medical care, and being a major conflict in relationships (APA, para. 5). So then perhaps the increased monetary awards for wrongful death actions could effectively reduce stress in the claimant’s life. With a large influx of cash, it is arguable that a lot of money-induced stress would be taken out of the picture and increasing the claimant’s quality of life.

This of course was a quick look into the idea of monetary damages and their possible ability to remedy the loss of a loved one. I would like to reiterate that I don’t believe money can ever replace the loss of a loved one, but I’m simply saying there is an argument that money helps reduce the net loss of quality of life for the claimant. It does appear that the theory holds some weight, but with its issues: one major issue being the diminishing returns on happiness when income reaches a certain threshold. Perhaps this could be integrated into the analysis more, but I wanted to keep a small scope for the analysis.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

'Have You Seen This Man?': Student newspaper editor on libel hook for campus crime coverage

A suit for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) may proceed against the former editor of the college newspaper at UMass Boston (UMB) since the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed summary judgment for the defendant today.  The case, Butcher v. University of Massachusetts, No. 17-P-161 (Mass. Ct. App. Sept. 17, 2018), raises a buffet of compelling issues for the media law buff, to say nothing of the specter of student journalism's uneasy relationship with public university oversight.

The facts are complicated and controverted.  Plaintiff Butcher worked in IT at UMB and took pictures with his cellphone while on a university shuttle bus.  The bus driver accused him of taking pictures of women on the bus; Butcher maintains that he was taking pictures of buses and structures.  After a verbal confrontation, the bus driver and Butcher took pictures of each other.  The driver sent pictures of Butcher to UMB police.  Butcher, using a pseudonym to protect his privacy, he asserted, complained about the bus driver to UMB public safety.

The student newspaper published an item from the police blotter based on the bus driver's report.  That item recounted that "[a] suspicious white male in a black jacket took photographs and video of nearby women, as well as some buildings on campus."  Soon thereafter, the newspaper published in print and online an additional report with the pictures of Butcher and the headline, "Have You Seen This Man?"  The latter report stated that "the man in the photograph allegedly walked around the UMass Boston campus snapping pictures of female members of the university community without their permission."  The gravamen of Butcher's complaint arises from the suggestion that he is some kind of sexual predator.  The newspaper moreover erred in stating that Butcher was reported by a student rather than by a bus driver, and that Butcher took pictures "around ... campus" rather than on the bus.

Identification followed from the newspaper publication of the photographs.  Campus detectives interviewed Butcher and took his university-issued phone over his objection.  Inspection of the phone revealed only the bus and structure photos Butcher had said he took.

Butcher complained of extreme social and professional alienation as a result of the newspaper publications.  He alleged exclusion from important projects at work, "fear and loathing" in stares on campus, and harassment by bus drivers compelling him to walk rather than take the shuttle.

The superior court dismissed claims against UMass on grounds of sovereign immunity and awarded summary judgment on the merits to former student newspaper editor Cady Vishniac.  See her compelling UMass Boston alumna testimonial at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.  The Appeals Court reversed as to Vishniac.  Here comes the buffet:

The substantial truth doctrine protected the newspaper on the small stuff.  The appeals court agreed with the lower court that defamation did not arise in the newspaper's plain errors--whether a student or a bus driver reported to police, and where the pictures were taken--because the gist or sting of the erroneous reporting was substantially the same as had the report contained the truth.  I think "around campus" sounds worse than on a bus, but OK, tomato, tomato.

The fair report privilege did not protect the newspaper's recitation of a witness statement to police.  Consistently with state high court precedent, the Appeals Court held that the fair report privilege--which gives journalists latitude to restate even defamatory falsehoods reported in official records, lest the public not be able to ascertain the use of erroneous information to support official action--is not triggered until there is an official police action, such as an arrest.  Because Butcher was not arrested--indeed, because there was no evidence to support an arrest--the fair report privilege never kicked in.  On the one hand, this is a logical construction of the privilege, as without an arrest, the risk of circulating defamatory falsehood outweighs the risk secreting falsehood as a basis of official action. On the other hand, this is a big heads up to editors--from high schools to pros--who mindlessly reprint the police blotter: the allegations of witnesses are as good as direct quotes and need to be fact checked as such.  The common law maxim rings true: the tale bearer is as responsible as the tale maker.

Actual damages include general damages, and reputational injury renders general damages.  Hear me now, believe me later, I say when I teach Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.: a limitation to actual damages does not mean only special damages!  Massachusetts law allows defamation to stand only on, and afford recovery only for, actual damages.  The defense here seems to have argued that that rule would preclude Butcher's recovery for want of demonstrable economic loss.  The court observed that Butcher moved on to another job that pays better, though had to forgo his pension plan, so economic loss is not a gimme.  No matter.  Butcher's alleged marginalization at work and social alienation on campus amply support his claim of reputational injury, and that's an actual damage with mental anguish as consequence, notwithstanding proof of economic loss.  General damages for reputation can be substantial in the eyes of jurors, especially jurors who have a distaste for mass media defendants.

Outrageous!  Like other states, Massachusetts allows IIED to proceed only upon conduct that would cause an ordinary person to proclaim, "Outrageous!"--i.e., as the Second Restatement put it, "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."  Does "Have You Seen This Man?" fit the bill?  Well, maybe: when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the party not moving for summary judgment, "as we must" according to the rules of civil procedure, the Appeals Court recalled.  I agree.  A colleague once told me that there are two allegations that destroy a person's reputation virtually beyond repair, even if proved untrue: child molester and racist.  In the #MeToo era, there might be a third.  However much those allegations might masquerade as "opinion" or mere suspicion, they have the force of factual declaration and are socially, if not also economically, fatal.

A subtext in the case is the problem of student journalism's editorial independence at a public university.  For purposes of the litigation to date, Vishniac was represented along with UMB by university counsel.  Will that representation continue now that the university has been dismissed?  Were the university's and Vishniac's interests always interchangeable anyway?  Is UMass Boston prepared to indemnify Vishniac?  Certainly I empathize with Vishniac.  One does not become a college newspaper editor and figure on having to take out libel insurance--whether for me at 20 years old or for Vishniac as a non-traditional student juggling family and educational opportunity.  But media at public universities have long asserted editorial independence by arguing, logically, that a heavy hand in university editorial control, prior review, or censorship would invite litigation against the university--so hands off!  If the university is on the hook either way, it's much more likely to heed demons' whispers when student journalists come 'round trying to follow the money.  And it's not like UMass Boston and money problems haven't met.

Finally, let's not be too quick to the ramparts in defense of journalism here, nor to rally the troops to #MeToo battle.  Notwithstanding the issue of whether the the newspaper reports implicated sexual-predator-like conduct, falsely, it seems to me that the newspaper has a bigger problem if even the bus driver witness only accused Butcher of "snapping pictures of female members of the university community without their permission."  Despite all efforts at making that seem creepy--the newspaper characterizing Butcher as "suspicious" and the bus driver claiming that Butcher hid his face when confronted--it happens that taking pictures of people in public places is legal in America.  It's true.  I checked.  No permission required.  Men or women, no matter.  Some might even call it art.  Europe a different story, long story, but different.  There are narrow exceptions, but they don't seem to be in play here.  I would like to learn that the police's first reaction to the bus driver's complaint was, "Sorry, you said 'suspicious'; could you say a little more about that?"

With remand to superior court, this ain't over.  Happy Constitution Day!

[UPDATE, January 28, 2020:  On December 31, 2019, the SJC ruled, per Justice Lenk: "The decisive question in this case is whether a newspaper can be liable for republishing public police
logs and requests for assistance received from a police department. We conclude that, based on the particular facts of these publications, the fair report privilege shielded Vishniac from liability." Read more at
Butcher v. University of Massachusetts, No. SJC-12698.]

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mass. App. upholds $2.9m 'actual malice' verdict over 'bitter feud' in local politics

The Range Feud (Columbia Pictures 1931)
The Massachusetts Appeals Court today rejected appeal of a defamation verdict.  The case is Van Liew v. Eliopoulos, no. 16-P-567 (soon available from the Reporter of Decisions), per Justice Blake.

The case arose amid what the court described as "a bitter feud ... between Chelmsford residents," focusing on the redevelopment of a historic property.  Plaintiff Eliopoulos was a selectman, real estate attorney, and project developer; defendant Van Liew was a business owner and project opponent.  The latter's vigorous opposition included a newsletter titled, "Why Perjury Matters."  The jury found, and the trial court entered judgment, against the defendant for 29 defamatory statements, to the tune of $2.9m.  The Appeals Court affirmed upon 26 statements.

Because the plaintiff was a public official and public figure, the case occasioned review of some First Amendment basics, namely, the Sullivan (FindLaw) "actual malice" standard and the Bose Corp. (FindLaw) standard of independent appellate review, besides the common law fact-opinion dichotomy.  Actual malice was supported, inter alia, by evidence that the defendant had reiterated charges of unethical conduct knowing that an ethics commission had exonerated the plaintiff.

The jury's damages award comprised $2.5m for reputational injury, $250,000 for emotional distress, and $150,000 in other compensatory damages.  Refusing remittitur, the Appeals Court held the damages sufficiently supported and neither excessive nor punitive.  A real estate broker had "testified that potential real estate buyers and sellers do not want to work with [plaintiff] because 'a lot of folks think that he is a—a corrupt, unethical person, because it's been said hundreds ... of times, over the past few years, in mailings and e-mails to their homes.'"  The Appeals Court opined, "The jury well could have found that the defamation turned [plaintiff] into a pariah in his own community, a status for him that has no end in sight."

Not many years ago, a politician-plaintiff's favorable verdict on actual malice was about as likely as, well not quite a unicorn, but maybe a California condor.  I advised more than one public-figure colleague not to pursue a cause because of cost, emotional toll, and mainly the overwhelming probability of loss under prophylactic free speech rules, all notwithstanding merits.  The "actual malice" standard on its face suggests no more rigor than a thoughtful recklessness analysis, but trial courts seemed to find it, to borrow the sometimes critique of strict scrutiny, "fatal in fact."

The efficacy of that conventional wisdom has been on the wane in recent years, and I welcome the return to fairness.  The $3m defamation verdict against Rolling Stone and its reporter in November  for "Rape on Campus" (NYT) and the Hulk Hogan (Bollea) privacy win against Gawker (settlement in NYT; new Netflix docko in The Atlantic) are high-profile instances of what might be a sea change underway to balance the scales.  Much hand-wringing has attended the President's "open up our libel laws" statement (NYT), and rightly so.  But that doesn't mean that the frustration that propelled Trump into office is wholly ill derived, on this point any less than on jobs and the economy.

The Appeals Court's application of "actual malice" was workaday and workmanlike.  That's the kind of cool rationality we need in our courts, now more than ever.