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Dickens v. Puryear

    Brief Fact Summary. Dickens (Plaintiff) filed suit against Defendants after being beaten by the male perpetrator, who had learned that the Plaintiff had shared sex, alcohol, and marijuana with the perpetrators’ 17 year-old daughter. The Wake Superior Court (North Carolina) granted summary judgment to the perpetrators on the ground that the suit was time-barred, and the judgment was affirmed by the court of appeals. The victim appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A threat of future harm that is apparently intended to and which does inflict mental distress is actionable as an intentional infliction of mental distress.

    Facts. In April, 1975, Puryear (Defendant) and several accomplices lured Plaintiff into a rural section of North Carolina, threatened him with a pistol and, after handcuffing him to a piece of farming machinery, severely beat him with nightsticks. Puryear then brandished a knife and threatened Plaintiff with castration. The Defendants continued beating Plaintiff over the course of two hours before releasing him.
    * Dickens filed a complaint in March, 1978, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sought damages citing a series of physical ailments, nervous disorders, and loss of earnings. The trial court held that Plaintiff’s claims were time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to assault and battery. Plaintiff, on appeal, argued that the three-year statute of limitations pertaining to the intentional infliction of emotional distress should have been applied.
    * The court agreed with the Plaintiff, holding that while the perpetrators properly raised the limitations defense, on its merits, the Plaintiff’s claim was not altogether barred by the one-year statute because the factual showing indicated that the victim could prove a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, which was was in fact governed by the three-year statute, N.C. Gen. Stat. Section: 1-52(5).

    Issue. For a cause of action alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, need the threat be immediate?

    Held. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling that affirmed summary judgment in favor of Puryear and remanded. The court affirmed the prior decision granting summary judgment in favor of the female perpetrator.

    Discussion. A threat of future harm may be sufficient for a cause of action. This is an especially challenging issue that has received increasing attention. The problem often arises in the toxic tort or defective product context. Often, courts are reluctant to permit recovery due to the difficulty of measuring damages, potentially crushing liability, and serious proof problems such as the possibility of multiple causes.


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