The defendant acquired an account for rubbish collection through his father-in-law, who was a member of the plaintiff trade association. The account was taken from Abramoff, another member of the association. The defendant, a non-member, was threatened that if he did not pay Abramoff for the account and join the trade association, he would be beaten up and his career would be over.
The jury is in the best position to determine whether a claim for emotional distress is recoverable. Emotional distress can form the basis of a claim without the presence of physical injury.
On February 1, 1948, Peter Kobzeff signed a contract with the Acme Brewing Company to collect their rubbish, as Acme was dissatisfied with the service of Abramoff, another rubbish collector. Kobzeff signed the contract, but it was clear that the work would be done by his son-in-law, the defendant, whom Kobzeff was trying to assist in building a rubbish collection business. Kobzeff and Abramoff were both members of the State Rubbish Collectors Association (the plaintiff), but the defendant was not. The plaintiff’s bylaws provide that a member should not take an account from another member without paying for it. Abramoff filed a complaint with the plaintiff to resolve the matter, and Kobzeff claimed that the account actually belonged to the defendant, a non-member. The defendant ultimately agreed to pay Abramoff $1,850 and join the plaintiff’s association. The defendant never paid, and claimed that he made the promise to pay under duress. He claims that he was called by the president of the association and threatened to have the account taken away from him if he did not join and pay Abramoff. The president also threatened to beat up the defendant. The defendant became physically ill as a result of his fear.
Is the plaintiff liable for the defendant’s emotional distress?
Yes. The plaintiff’s liability for the fright it caused the defendant is clear. The trial court decision is affirmed.
The court indicates first that a cause of action for assault has been established because the defendant showed that the plaintiff intentionally subjected the defendant to mental suffering incident to serious threats to his well-being, even if no technical assault has occurred. In many cases, mental distress causes physical suffering, and the party that caused the mental distress would be liable for those physical consequences if it was foreseeable that the mental distress would cause the physical harm. Even in cases where mental suffering is a major element of damages and no physical injury is present, it would be anomalous to deny recovery. The court believes that the jury is in the best position to determine whether or not emotional distress was severe enough to permit recovery. Here, the plaintiff caused such extreme fright through coercion to the defendant that liability is clear. If the damages were excessive, this was cured by the trial court’s reduction of damages.