Showing posts with label intent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label intent. Show all posts

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Birth announcement: Ontario court is reluctant parent of new tort of 'internet harassment'

UNESCO image CC BY-SA 4.0
The tort world is abuzz with a court decision in Ontario that has birthed a new common law cause of action for online harassment.

The facts that gave rise to the case were extreme.  The defendant was the subject of a New York Times story (subscription) on January 30 about the difficulty of remediating online reputational harm.  The perpetrator of the harassment targeted some 150 victims, including children, spat accusations ranging from fraud to pedophilia, and was adjudged a vexatious litigant and jailed for contempt of court.  Floundering in a dearth of effective enforcement mechanisms, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice (para. 171) recognized a "tort of harassment in internet communications" that means to be narrow:

where the defendant maliciously or recklessly engages in communications conduct so outrageous in character, duration, and extreme in degree, so as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and tolerance, with the intent to cause fear, anxiety, emotional upset or to impugn the dignity of the plaintiff, and the plaintiff suffers such harm.

The case is Caplan v. Atas, 2021 ONSC 670 (Ont. Super. Ct. Jan. 28, 2021).  Jennifer McKenzie and Amanda Branch at Bereskin & Parr have commentary.  Hat tip to Dan Greenberg for bringing the New York Times story to my attention.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Horrors at Oak Ridge Psychiatric amounted to assault, battery, but lacked intent for IIED, Ontario court rules

From 1963 to 1988, patients involuntarily committed to the maximum-security Oak Ridge Mental Health Centre at Penetanguishene, Ontario, were subject to barbaric experimentation.  (From CBC (2016), above.) Treatments included LSD, other mind-altering drugs, and corporeal maltreatment, such as "the Capsule":

a soundproof, windowless, and constantly lit 8’ x 10’ room, with no furniture and an exposed toilet, where groups of patients, had their interactions monitored through closed-circuit television and a one-way mirror by patient observers outside....

Patients ... were frequently restrained or strapped to each other, and were most often injected with DDT drugs to lower their inhibitions. They were often paired so that patients diagnosed with schizophrenia experiencing a chaotic range of emotions where placed together with patients with antisocial personality disorders....

So egregious were the methods employed at Oak Ridge that 28 former patients now suing the Crown could have made out a fair case for medical negligence.  But the Ontario court was willing to find intentional torts, assault and battery, instead.  Notwithstanding lawful involuntary commitment and seeming express consent to treatment procured from patients, the extreme nature of the medical experimentation rendered the patients' informed consent impossible, the Ontario Superior Court ruled in June.

At the same time, the patients could not prove intentional infliction of emotional distress, for want of "double-duty intent" (my words); that is, although medical staff inflicted emotional distress intentionally in the short term, and notwithstanding the lasting psychological trauma that resulted, the defendants, however misguided, acted with the greater goal, or intent, of making the patients well.

Hat tip to Private Law Theory, which reported an examination of the case against an historical analysis of battery in Canadian common law by Omar Ha-Redeye, executive director of the Durham Community Legal Clinic in Oshawa, Ontario.

The case is Barker v. Barker, 2020 ONSC 3746 (CanLII) (Ont. Super. Ct. June 25, 2020) (Canada).

Watch and read more about Oak Ridge with Canadian Broadcasting (2016) (above) and in other sources.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Battery, IIED in play if medical staff ignore patient's 'stop,' court rules

Medical professionals may be liable for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress for failing to heed a patient's withdrawal of consent, a Massachusetts Appeals Court reversal warned in February.

Brigham and Women's Hospital is a teaching hospital
of Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Photo by trepulu CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (2010).
According to the appellate court opinion, evidence in the case supported the plaintiffs' disputed claim that terminally ill cancer patient Donna Zaleskas begged staff at Brigham and Women's Hospital to stop X-rays of her leg because of her physical discomfort, but that X-ray technicians proceeded anyway.  On behalf of Zaleskas, who succumbed to cancer, survivors are suing the hospital for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, upon the theory that Zaleskas withdrew consent.  The Superior Court awarded summary judgment to the defense, and the Appeals Court reversed and remanded.

Thirty-seven-year-old decedent Zaleskas was a personal injury and product liability attorney in New York and alumna of Boston College Law School.

A finer line than one might expect separates theories of negligence and battery in many medical malpractice cases.  When a medical professional touches or otherwise physically treats a patient without, or beyond the scope of, the patient's consent, the action can simultaneously satisfy the test for intentional battery—defendant intentionally effecting physical contact that is unwanted by the complainant—and negligence—defendant's failure to comport with the standard of care of a reasonable professional under the circumstances.  Consent is an affirmative defense to intentional torts, like assumption of risk is a defense to negligence, but scope of consent often presents a thorny question of controverted fact.  Of course, patients with the benefit of hindsight are ill inclined to suppose that they consented to physical contact that caused harm, so intentional tort claims are often rationally articulable alongside accident claims in medmal lawsuits.

In the interest of doctrinal clarity, courts often, and in some jurisdictions, upon some facts, must, channel cases into a distinct rubric for "medical malpractice" that sits under or alongside the negligence umbrella, regardless of whether the case might be characterized as intent or accident.  That's a modern trend.  Massachusetts is more permissive in preserving conventional claims in intentional torts in medmal when the facts fit the bill.  The difference can be important in different dimensions.  A defendant's insurer might deny coverage, under policy terms, for intentional torts.  At the same time, intentional torts may give a plaintiff access to greater, even punitive, damage awards.

The Appeals Court ruled Zaleskas's claim fit for hearing in the intentional tort framework.  The court wrote plainly, "We now hold that if a patient unambiguously withdraws consent after medical treatment has begun, and if it is medically feasible to discontinue treatment, continued treatment following such a withdrawal may give rise to a medical battery claim."  In the instant case, "a reasonable jury could find that saying stop or words to that effect, in the particular factual context at issue, was sufficient to withdraw consent."

The court ruled furthermore, to the plaintiffs' advantage, "that consent to have one's body touched or positioned for an X-ray is not a matter beyond the common knowledge or experience of a layperson and does not require expert medical testimony."

The case is Zaleskas v. Brigham & Women's Hosp., No. 18-P-1076 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 11, 2020) (Justia). Justice Henry wrote for a unanimous panel with Rubin and Wendlandt, JJ.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Revenge porn law can survive First Amendment scrutiny by requiring 'actual malice'


Last week a Tyler, Texas, appellate court struck the state’s criminal revenge porn law as fatally overbroad, so facially unconstitutional, under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.  The ruling garnered headlines heralding the unconstitutionality of revenge porn law, which could have big implications in privacy law and policy nationwide—even ramifications for U.S. foreign relations.

However, the court’s ruling was not so broad as headlines have suggested.  In fact, the court gave wise and constructive feedback on what a revenge porn law needs to look like to pass constitutional muster—which it can.  It seems in the end that the Texas law was just not well drafted.  Accordingly, the revenge porn laws that have proliferated in the United States, now in 38 states (collected at Cyber Civil Rights Initiative), should be scrutinized and, if necessary, corrected.  (Constitutional problems with Vermont and Arizona laws were mentioned just today by the U.K. Register, here.)

The Texas case, Ex parte Jones, No. 12-17-00346 (Tex. Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2018), involved a criminal information against Jones under Texas Penal Code section 21.16(b), which criminalizes the “unlawful disclosure of intimate visual materials.”  The statute reads:


A person commits an offense if:
  (1) without the effective consent of the depicted person, the person intentionally discloses visual material depicting another person with the person’s intimate parts exposed or engaged in sexual conduct;
  (2) the visual material was obtained by the person or created under circumstances in which the depicted person had a reasonable expectation that the visual material would remain private;
  (3) the disclosure of the visual material causes harm to the depicted person; and
  (4) the disclosure of the visual material reveals the identity of the depicted person in any manner[.]


The statute, section 21.16(a), furthermore defines “visual material” broadly (“any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide or any photographic reproduction that contains or incorporates in any manner any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide,” as well as electronic transmission) and “intimate parts” specifically (““the naked genitals, pubic area, anus, buttocks, or female nipple of a person”).

The court’s First Amendment analysis was sound.  The court applied de novo review to test the constitutionality of a criminal statute.  The court rejected a narrow construction that would confine the law to mere obscenity, as stringently defined by federal precedent.  Because the statute is then a content-based restriction of expressive content, the court charged the government with the burden of rebutting presumptive unconstitutionality.  The State conceded at oral argument that the law must survive strict scrutiny, i.e., advance a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to do so.  Intimate privacy passes muster on the first prong, but the statute facially fails narrow tailoring.  The court acknowledged that overbreadth doctrine is “strong medicine”; nevertheless, the statute could not measure up.

The court illustrated the statute’s fatal flaw with a hypothetical, unattributed so presumably original, that seems drawn from a law school or bar exam:


“Adam and Barbara are in a committed relationship. One evening, in their home, during a moment of passion, Adam asks Barbara if he can take a nude photograph of her. Barbara consents, but before Adam takes the picture, she tells him that he must not show the photograph to anyone else. Adam promises that he will never show the picture to another living soul, and takes a photograph of Barbara in front of a plain, white background with her breasts exposed.

“A few months pass, and Adam and Barbara break up after Adam discovers that Barbara has had an affair. A few weeks later, Adam rediscovers the topless photo he took of Barbara. Feeling angry and betrayed, Adam emails the photo without comment to several of his friends, including Charlie. Charlie never had met Barbara and, therefore, does not recognize her. But he likes the photograph and forwards the email without comment to some of his friends, one of whom, unbeknownst to Charlie, is Barbara’s coworker, Donna. Donna recognizes Barbara and shows the picture to Barbara’s supervisor, who terminates Barbara’s employment.”


“In this scenario,” the court observed, “Adam can be charged under Section 21.16(b), but so can Charlie and Donna.”

Therein lies the problem: not necessarily as applied to Adam, but as applied to Charlie and Donna, who are ignorant of the circumstances under which the photo came to be.  Certainly Charlie, who received the photo from Adam “without comment,” might as well believe that Adam ripped the photo of a stranger from a pornographic website.  However indecent the photo, both Charlie and Donna have a First Amendment right to communicate the photo “downstream.”  Yet without Barbara’s consent, Charlie and Donna run afoul of the revenge porn law.  Given the ease with which persons can share visual images in the age of electronic and online communication, the court found “alarming breadth” in this potential criminalization of expression.  In First Amendment overbreadth doctrine, a facially overbroad criminal law must be ruled unconstitutional even if it might be constitutional as applied to the defendant before the court.

The court distilled the law’s flaws in two dimensions related to culpability.  Typically of a criminal prohibition, the statute requires intent.  But intent pertains only to the republication of the image.  The statute does not require that the actor have “knowledge or reason to know the circumstances surrounding the material’s creation, under which the depicted person’s reasonable expectation of privacy arose.”  Second, the statute does not require “intent to harm the depicted person,” or even knowledge “of the depicted person’s identity.”  Borrowing the language of civil law (meaning common law tort), one would say that the statute requires volitional intent, but not intent to commit a wrong or to cause an injury.

The requisite intent to survive constitutional challenge may be likened to “actual malice,” which is used in both civil and criminal defamation law to describe “knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity.”  In the context of revenge porn, a constitutional law might require “actual knowledge of the depicted person’s reasonable and continuing expectation of privacy in the image, or reckless disregard of same.”  If Charlie knew the identity of Barbara, so might infer the circumstances under which the photo had been taken, then the State might at least allege recklessness.  Donna, who did know Barbara’s identity, might be charged.  But she should be entitled to defend upon a qualified privilege, borrowed again from common law defamation, to share information in the interest of a recipient or third party when the defendant should disclose according to general standards of decency.  A corrected statute would hold Adam accountable without a constitutional problem.

Also just last week, the Rhode Island legislature (my home state) passed a revenge porn bill (2018-H 7452A) that has the support of the Governor Gina Raimondo (AP).  Raimondo vetoed a revenge porn bill in 2016, objecting on free speech grounds (Providence Journal).  Her position now is bolstered by the Texas decision in Jones.  Beefing up the intent requirement is precisely one of the R.I. legislative fixes that brought the latest bill to fruition.  The Rhode Island bill requires that the defendant intentionally disseminated, published, or sold “[w]ith knowledge or with reckless disregard for the likelihood that the depicted person will suffer harm, or with the intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce the depicted person.”

I still have qualms about extending the “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) standard—which is drawn from Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as a bulwark against improper state action—being extended into the realm of private criminal or civil liability.  REP is potentially much broader than the intimate-depiction definitions of revenge porn laws.  And criminalization and civil liability are not the same.  Even though criminal defamation is constitutional when qualified by actual malice, contemporary human rights norms discourage the criminalization of expression at all.

At the same time, I have argued in favor of evolving U.S. law to recognize downstream control of private information, in consonance with both American values in the information age and emerging global legal norms.  Revenge porn laws—as against Adam, to the exclusion of Charlie and Donna—are a modest step in that direction, which European observers will welcome of us.  We will have to remain vigilant to continue to protect freedom of expression in tandem with expanding privacy rights, especially in a time in which the latter at the expense of the former is the fashion.  Conscientious actors such as the Jones panel (Worthen, C.J., and Hoyle and Neeley, JJ.) and Governor Raimondo are doing well, so far.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Video resources for teaching theory of intent in tort law

I've created some new video resources to help in teaching common law torts.  These videos all relate to theoretical points in the introductory unit on intent.  The videos are available on my public YouTube channel.  They can be used in any torts course, though they track Shapo & Peltz-Steele, Tort and Injury Law (3d ed. 2006) (CAP, FB, Amazon), and Steele's Straightforward Torts (free from SSRN).




Study: Intent in U.S. Tort Law.  This video offers a study in the theory of intent in U.S. tort law.  A movie clip is analyzed to demonstrate analysis of intent in battery.  Running time: 8:50.



Explainer: "Pound Progression" in U.S. Tort Law.  This video briefly explains the three steps Dean Roscoe Pound observed in the development of civil justice systems.  Running time: 2:19.



Explainer: Eggshell Plaintiff Rule in U.S. Tort Law.  This video briefly explain the operation of the eggshell plaintiff rule, as well as the reason for its inapplicability to intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Cited is Vosburg v. Putney (Wis. 1891).  Running time: 2:36.




Explainer: Culpability Spectrum in U.S. Tort Law (Pound to Intent).  This video examines the culpability spectrum in U.S. tort law with an emphasis on variations on intent.  The video further explains how culpability can be varied to compensate for the uncertainty implications of the Pound progression.  Running time: 3:44.