Tuesday, September 20, 2016

INTENTIONAL INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS


A cause of action often pleaded but the elements were recently explained in CHANKO v. American Broadcasting Cos., Inc., 2016 NY Slip Op 2478 - NY: Court of Appeals 2016:

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This Court has enumerated four elements of a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress: "(i) extreme and outrageous conduct; (ii) intent to cause, or disregard of a substantial probability of causing, severe emotional distress; (iii) a causal connection between the conduct and injury; and (iv) severe emotional distress" (Howell v New York Post Co., 81 NY2d 115, 121 [1993]). "`Liability has been found only where the conduct has been 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'" (Howell, 81 NY2d at 122, quoting Murphy v American Home Prods. Corp., 58 NY2d 293, 303 [1983] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). Here, the complaint's fifth cause of action addresses each element above and alleges that the Hospital and Schubl allowed ABC to broadcast and disseminate the footage of the final moments of decedent's life, without the knowledge or consent of decedent or plaintiffs. The complaint alleges that plaintiffs watched the episode and were shocked and upset, that "[d]efendants acted intentionally, recklessly, willfully, maliciously and deliberately," and that it was foreseeable that plaintiffs would be caused to suffer emotional distress. Alternatively, the complaint alleges that "defendants acted with reckless disregard for the probability that they would cause plaintiffs to suffer emotional distress," and that defendants knew or should have known that emotional distress was a likely result of their actions. The complaint further alleges that plaintiffs experienced emotional distress due to defendants' conduct, and that "[d]efendants' conduct was extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, utterly intolerable in a civilized community, and without privilege."

Although these allegations facially address all of the required elements, they are not sufficient to support this cause of action because they do not rise to the level necessary to satisfy the outrageousness element — the element most susceptible to a determination as a matter of law — which is designed to filter out petty complaints and assure that the emotional distress is genuine (see Howell, 81 NY2d at 121). Noting that "the requirements . . . are rigorous, and difficult to satisfy," we have commented that, "of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claims considered by this Court, every one has failed because the alleged conduct was not sufficiently outrageous" (Howell, 81 NY2d at 122 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted] [emphasis added]).

The conduct at issue here for purposes of the fifth cause of action — the broadcasting of a recording of a patient's last moments of life without consent — would likely be considered reprehensible by most people, and we do not condone it. Nevertheless, it was not so extreme and outrageous as to satisfy our exceedingly high legal standard[2]. The footage aired by ABC was edited so that it did not include decedent's name, his image was blurred, and the episode included less than three minutes devoted to decedent and his circumstances. We cannot conclude that defendants' conduct in allowing the broadcasting of that brief, edited segment is more outrageous than other conduct that this Court and the Appellate Division Departments have determined did not rise to the level required to establish "extreme and outrageous conduct" sufficient to state a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. For example, we did not deem a newspaper's conduct sufficiently outrageous when it published a picture of a person in a psychiatric facility — thereby informing the world that the photographed person was a patient at such a facility — even though the residents were photographed by someone trespassing on facility grounds and the facility had expressly requested that the newspaper not publish pictures of residents (see Howell, 81 NY2d at 118). Similarly, the conduct of a television station has been deemed insufficiently outrageous when the station displayed recognizable images of rape victims after repeatedly assuring them that they would not be identifiable (see Doe v American Broadcasting Cos., 152 AD2d 482, 483 [1st Dept 1989], appeal dismissed 74 NY2d 945 [1989]).

We conclude that defendants' conduct here, while offensive, was not so atrocious and utterly intolerable as to support a cause of action in the context of this tort (see Marmelstein v Kehillat New Hempstead: The Rav Aron Jofen Community Synagogue, 11 NY3d 15, 22-23 [2008]; Freihofer v Hearst Corp., 65 NY2d 135, 143-144 [1985])[3] . Hence, there is no need to address whether the newsworthiness privilege is applicable.

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[2] We note that, after viewing the broadcast, one of decedent's sons (who is a physician) submitted an affidavit commenting on, among other things, what he perceived as highly inappropriate conduct on Schubl's part, namely, focusing on the camera and giving an interview in the emergency room, instead of concentrating on providing lifesaving medical services to decedent. However, plaintiffs have never relied — and do not now rely — on such conduct to supply a basis for their claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. We, therefore, have no occasion at this time to express an opinion as to whether allegations of that nature would be sufficient to state a cause of action.
[3] Unlike plaintiffs' fourth cause of action, the fifth cause of action cannot rely on additional evidence that might be revealed in discovery. To state a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, plaintiffs must already be aware of the offending conduct and have suffered emotional distress as a result thereof. Thus, dismissal of this claim is appropriate at this stage of the litigation."

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