Family Law Keyed to Weisbergback
Brief Fact Summary. Payne and his wife went to marriage counseling lead by their priest Osborne. Osborne and Payne’s wife had an extramarital affair, resulting in divorce between Payne and wife. Payne brought suit against Osborne and the Diocese based on the tort of outrageous conduct.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. To prove the tort of outrageous conduct or intentional infliction of emotional distress, petitioner must prove that the wrongdoer’s conduct was intentional or reckless; that the conduct was outrageous and intolerable, and that it offends against generally accepted standards of decency.
Facts. Payne and his wife went to Osborne, their parish priest, for marriage counseling. Payne and his wife ultimately divorced after he discovered a 45 day adulterous relationship had occurred between his wife and Osborne. Payne sued Osborne for the tort of outrageous conduct and the Diocese of Owensboro under a vicarious liability theory for negligent training, screening, and supervision of Osborne. Payne testified that he suffered a nervous breakdown, lost his religion, lost his house and his job due to discovery of the affair.
Issue. Is Osborne liable for outrageous conduct, and is the Diocese liable for negligence under a vicarious liability theory?
Held. Osborne is liable for the tort of outrage because of his actions and the relationship he held with Payne and his wife. The Diocese is not liable because Payne failed to produce evidence that the Diocese should have been on notice that Osborne would commit such acts.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress or outrageous conduct is established in Kentucky by proving that the wrongdoer’s conduct was intentional or reckless; that the conduct was outrageous and intolerable, and that it offends against generally accepted standards of decency. There must be a causal connection between the wrongdoer’s conduct and the emotional distress and the distress must be severe.
The most important element in this case is the special relationship Osborne held as counselor. He was aware that the marriage partners were vulnerable, and his conduct combined with this relationship formed the basis for outrageous conduct.
Some jurisdictions have denied such relief on the theory that the actions are an attempt to bring amatory actions which are no longer viable. However, if the essence of the complaint is directed to a cause of action other than the one abolished, the claim is legally cognizable.
The Diocese had no knowledge of a history of sexual misconduct by Osborne involving parishioners or that he might engage in such conduct. Without such evidence to hold the Diocese vicariously liable would essentially amount to strict liability.
Discussion. The Court pointed out that such torts must be decided on a case-by-case basis. It was not the fact that Osborne was a priest that created the special relationship, but rather the fact that he was acting as counselor and was aware of the fragile nature of the marriage.