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Caruso v. Local Union No. 690 of International Brotherhood of Teamsters

    Brief Fact Summary. A Washington appeals court affirmed a trial court’s judgment, upon a jury verdict, rendered in favor of the Appellee employer, Caruso (Appellee), in its suit against the union for interference with business relations and defamation arising from the union’s publication of an article that urged its members and others not patronize the Appellee’s business. The Appellant, Local Union No. 690 of International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Appellant) challenged a decision

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.
    Damage to the business of persons subject to a primary boycott, lawfully conducted, is one of the inconveniences for which the law does not afford a remedy.
    In order to recover under a cause of action for defamation, plaintiff must establish four essential elements: (1) falsity; (2) an unprivileged communication; (3) fault, and (4) damages.

    Facts. The Appellee, owner of a carpeting business, owned a parking lot not far from his Spokane store. He leased parking spaces to local motorists. Periodically, commercial vehicles would block access to the lot and on one such occasion the Appellee went to the lot in an attempt to negotiate the removal of one such vehicle. The vehicle, a beer truck, belonged to a member of the Appellant Union. Caruso, noticing the keys were in the truck, moved the vehicle himself. The vehicle was subsequently towed and the truck owner and the Appellee got into a heated dispute. Shortly thereafter, the union published a piece in its newsletter urging its membership to boycott the Appellee’s business. The Appellee began to receive harassing telephone calls and under economic pressure precipitated by the boycott eventually relocated his business. The Appellee brought an action against the union for interference with business relations and a jury rendered judgment in his favor. The appellate court affi
    rmed.

    Issue. In its publication of a piece in its newsletter urging its members to boycott a local business, did the Appellant union tortiously interfere with a local business?

    Held. No. The court held that the published articles were privileged as to the business interference claim, reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and the judgment, and dismissed the business interference claim.

    Discussion. In its reversal of the lower court’s decision, the court in Caruso analogized the manner in which the Appellant union boycotted the Appellee’s business to similar actions taken in the push for civil rights, i.e., the use of economic pressure to achieve other ends and the use of speech to effect such pressure. The court explained, “Though perhaps coercive, the petitioner’s activity was speech in its purest form and thus is entitled to at least the same degree of protections the NAACP’s ‘speech plus’ conduct’ activities were afforded against imposition of damages for business interference.” Citing to an earlier decision, the court characterized the Union’s newsletter as “plainly intended to influence respondent’s conduct by its activities,” which, the court noted, were “not fundamentally different than the function of a newspaper.” The court then quoted the prior, analogous decision, pointing out that certain views and practices may be offensive, however, “So long as the me
    ans are peaceful, the communication need not meet standards of acceptability.” Hence, the content of speech is seldom at issue, and the means of disseminating it are granted wide latitude. The court stated succinctly, “Damage to the business of persons subject to a primary boycott, lawfully conducted, is one of the inconveniences for which the law does not afford a remedy.”
    With regard to the defamation claim, the court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by granting the employer leave to amend to add the defamation claim and that the union was not prejudiced by the amendment. The court drew the distinction between public and private figures and the standards to be applied respectively: “The necessary degree of fault depends on whether plaintiff is a private individual or a public figure or public official. If plaintiff is a private individual, a negligence standard of fault applies. Otherwise, plaintiff must prove actual malice – that is, knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity – to recover.” The court thus remanded for a new trial on the defamation.


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