Brief Fact Summary. Intel Corp. (Plaintiff) brought suit against Hamidi (Defendant), claiming that by communicating with Plaintiff’s employees on Plaintiff’s email system, Defendant committed the tort of trespass to chattels.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Under California law, the tort of trespass to chattels does not encompass an electronic communication that neither damages the recipient computer system nor impairs its functioning.
Held. No. In this case, electronic communication does not constitute an actionable trespass to personal property (the computer system) because it does not interfere with the possessor’s use or possession of, or any other legally protected interest in, the personal property itself.
* To be actionable under current California tort law, Defendant’s interference must have caused some injury to the chattel or to Plaintiff’s rights in it. The Restatement makes clear that some actual harm must have occurred in order for a trespass to chattels to be actionable. Plaintiff suggests that the requirement of actual harm does not apply here because it sought only injunctive relief. To obtain injunctive relief, Plaintiff must show that Defendant’s wrongful acts threaten to cause irreparable injury. In this case, the court stated that it would make little legal sense to issue an injunction without a showing of likely irreparable injury in an action for trespass to chattels, in which injury to the personal property or the possessor’s interest in it is an element of the action. Plaintiff argued that its interest in employee productivity is a comparable protected interest in its computer system. The court disagreed. The distraction of reading an unsolicited communication is not w
ithin the scope of the tort trespass to chattels.
* California common law should not be extended to cover, as a trespass to chattels, an otherwise harmless e-mail whose contents are objectionable. Writing on behalf of several industry groups appearing as amici curiae, Professor Epstein suggested that a company’s server should be its castle, upon which any unauthorized intrusion, however harmless, is a trespass. However, the court found computers to be personal property, not realty. The court analogized an objectionable email on a computer to an unwelcome message on a telephone or fax. The court refused to adopt Professor Epstein’s view.
* The court declines to address the First Amendment claims that would arise if Plaintiff had stated a claim for common law trespass. The court analogized Defendant’s e-mails to Plaintiff’s employees to that of a protester holding a sign or shouting through a bullhorn outside corporate headquarters.
Dissent. (J. Brown) Plaintiff’s objection is directed not toward Defendant’s message but toward his use of Plaintiff’s property to display his message. Plaintiff deserves an injunction even if its objections are based entirely on the e-mail’s contents. Plaintiff is entitled to allow its employees Internet access without incurring any simultaneous obligation to allow access to pornographic websites.
* (J. Mosk) The majority refused to distinguish the Internet from unauthorized intermeddling on a private Intranet. Defendant is not communicating in the equivalent of an unsolicited “junk” mailing through the U.S. Postal Service. Defendant’s actions, in crossing into Plaintiff’s Intranet, is more like intruding into a private mailroom, commandeering the mail cart, and dropping of unwanted broadsides on 30,000 desks.
Concurrence. (J. Kennard) To establish the tort of trespass to chattels, Plaintiff must show that Defendant’s occasional emails to Plaintiff’s employees damaged Plaintiff’s computer system or impaired its functioning in some significant way.
Discussion. In this case the court refused to hold that the objectionable e-mail messages distributed to a company’s employees constituted a trespass. An action for trespass to chattels will not lie if there are is no damage to the chattels. Here, the e-mails were only a momentary disturbance to the employees.