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GTE Southwest, Inc. v. Bruce

    Brief Fact Summary. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth District of Texas affirmed a trial court’s judgment on a jury verdict for Plaintiffs in an action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. To recover damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; (2) the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) the actions of the defendant caused the plaintiff emotional distress; and (4) the resulting emotional distress was severe.

    Facts. Plaintiffs, employees for GTE Southwest, alleged that over the course of several years, they endured severe abuse from their supervisor. Employees testified of a pattern of abusive behavior, including extensive profanity and physical intimidation. At trial, the jury found for Plaintiffs. The appellate court affirmed.

    Issue. Did Defendant’s behavior go beyond the bounds of a tolerable work environment, thus constituting the intentional infliction of emotional distress?

    Held. Yes. The court, in an opinion providing a detailed exegesis of the statutory scope of an action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, held that the GTE supervisor’s conduct went well beyond the limits of an ordinary work dispute.

    Discussion. The GTE court used the circumstances of this case as an opportunity to explore the parameters of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. It should be noted that with this offense, as with other tort claims for personal injury, a plaintiff may recover for pain and suffering, in addition to pecuniary damages. Additionally, in most jurisdictions it is no longer required that the victim suffer physical manifestations of the mental distress.
    Addressing first the element of intentionality, the GTE court notes, “[a] claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress cannot be maintained when the risk that emotional distress will result is merely incidental to the commission of some other tort. Accordingly, a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress will not lie if emotional distress is not the intended or primary consequence of the defendant’s conduct.” Next, with the regard to the second element, the court (employing the language of the Restatement) explained, “[t]o be extreme and outrageous for purposes of showing intentional infliction of emotional distress, conduct must be 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.” The court drew a further distinction: “[g]enerally, insensitive or even rude behavior does not constitute extreme and outrageous conduct. Similarly,
    mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities do not rise to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct.”
    The court also examined the important factor of the relationship between the parties in contention. Specifically, within the context of the employment environment “the extreme and outrageous character of the conduct may arise from an abuse by the actor of a position, or a relation with the other, which gives him actual or apparent authority over the other, or power to affect his interests,” and, since the range of disputatious behavior varies so broadly within the employment arena, “an employee must prove the existence of some conduct that brings the dispute outside the scope of an ordinary employment dispute and into the realm of extreme and outrageous conduct.”
    Finally, with regard to a pattern of such conduct, the court explains: “[r]epeated harassment may compound the outrageousness of incidents which, taken individually, might not be sufficiently extreme to warrant liability.”


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