ProfessorMelissa A. Hale
CaseCast™ – "What you need to know"
Defendant sent mass emails criticizing Plaintiff’s employment practices on Plaintiff’s internal email server. Plaintiff sued Defendant alleging “trespass to chattels.” The trial court granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and issued an injunction preventing Defendant from sending emails to Plaintiff’s employees through Plaintiff’s email system. The court of appeals affirmed, and Defendant appealed.
Trespass to chattels occurs only when an intentional interference with the possession of personal property causes some actual injury to the property.
Intel Corporation (Plaintiff) permits “reasonable non-business use” of an email system it maintains for its employees. On six occasions over two years, Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi (Defendant), a former Intel employee, sent mass email communications, critical of Plaintiff’s employment practices, to up to 35,000 of Intel’s current employees at a time. Defendant gave the employees the opportunity to opt out of receiving his emails. The emails caused no other disruption to Intel and its computers, however, Plaintiff asked Defendant to cease using its equipment to transport messages.
Whether the sending of unwanted electronic communications, which causes no actual injury to personal property, is actionable as a trespass to chattels.
No. The court of appeal’s ruling is reversed. Trespass to chattels occurs only when an intentional interference with the possession of personal property causes some actual injury to the property.
(Brown, J.):As a private property owner, Plaintiff is not bound by First Amendment constraints and should be permitted to exclude unwanted communications for any reason, including their content.
(Mosk, J.): Defendant’s actions are equivalent to him entering Plaintiff’s private offices to contact its employees. Therefore, his actions should be prohibited because he is not communicating on the broad public forum of the Internet.
(Kennard, J.): There is no trespass to chattels because Plaintiff has not shown that Defendant’s occasional bulk email messages to Plaintiff’s employees have damaged Plaintiff’s computer system or impaired its functionality in any significant way.
Unwanted electronic communications may constitute a trespass to chattels if the volume and frequency of the communications is sufficient to overly burden the recipients’ email system. Defendant only sent emails on six occasions during a two-year period. Defendant caused no actual injury to Plaintiff’s computers or email system, and thus is not liable for trespass to chattels. Extending the tort of trespass to chattels to encompass actions amounting to “impairment by content” goes far beyond the realm of harms the tort was designed to address. Moreover, Plaintiff has not submitted sufficient facts demonstrating an injury to its personal property or to its legal interest in that property. Any harm caused to Plaintiff’s employeesby reading the emails rose from the content of the emails, not the actual emails themselves. Furthermore, Plaintiff may not recover on a trespass to chattels theory because it does not a recognized “property interest” in its employees’ time.