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Sacco v. High Country Independent Press

    Brief Fact Summary. The District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, in and for the County of Gallatin (Montana) granted summary judgment to Defendants, the employer and officers, on claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C.S. Section: 1983 and negligent emotional distress against the officers, and on a defamation claim against the employer.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Government officials performing discretionary functions are shielded from liability for civil damages only where their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have knowledge.

    Facts. Plaintiff alleged in her complaint that when she left employment with High Country Independent Press (Defendant), company officers and stockholders falsely claimed that she had committed theft of private documents. Plaintiff instituted, among other causes of action, a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

    Issue. Did the particulars alleged in the complaint justify the adoption of negligent infliction of emotional distress as an independent cause of action?

    Held. The court reversed and remanded the lower court’s grant of summary judgment. The court, joining other jurisdictions, recognized negligent infliction of emotional distress as an independent cause of action.

    Discussion. The Supreme Court of Montana constructed a fresh legal framework in adopting negligent infliction of emotional distress as an independent cause of action, recognizing a need to enunciate a clear standard. Negligent infliction of emotional distress occurs when serious or severe emotional distress to the plaintiff was the reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent act.
    The court addressed the policy concerns, i.e., the risk of “a floodgate of claims”, possibly fraudulent in connection with emotional distress claims-a type of harm subjective and nebulous in its definition. This the court addressed by articulating two safeguards: the requirements of both foreseeability and a high factual standard of proof with regard to severity and seriousness of harm.
    With regard to ascertaining what facts constitute the elements for a cause of action, the court stated that the issue of the extent of the emotional distress experienced and the extent that defendant’s conduct actually caused emotional distress are questions for the jury. The jury can refer to their own experiences in making these conclusions. In this case, summary judgment was inappropriate, as the issues in the instant case should properly have been submitted before a jury.
    Additionally, the court provided guidelines as to what type of harm meets the threshold requirements for a Plaintiff to prove a claim: “‘[s]erious emotional distress is defined as follows: emotional distress passes under various names, such as mental suffering, mental anguish, mental or nervous shock, or the like. It includes all highly unpleasant mental reactions, such as fright, horror, grief, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, chagrin, disappointment, worry, and nausea. It is only where it is extreme that the liability arises.” The court will intervene only where the distress inflicted is so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. In analyzing the intensity and duration of the distress are factors to be considered.
    Finally, the court drew a distinction between negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, that the difference between the two “lies not in the elements of the tort, but in the nature and culpability of the defendant’s conduct.”


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