Torts Keyed to Epsteinback
Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiff, Nader (Plaintiff), alleged that the Defendant, General Motors Corp. (Defendant), harassed and intimidated him to prevent the Plaintiff from releasing his book about the Defendant, “Unsafe at any Speed.” At issue are the Plaintiff’s claims for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Privacy is invaded only if the information sought is of a confidential nature and defendant’s conduct was unreasonably intrusive. There can be no invasion of privacy where the information sought is open to public view or has been voluntarily revealed to others.
Facts. The Plaintiff, an author and lecturer on automobile safety, has, for some years, been an articulate and severe critic of the Defendant’s products from the standpoint of safety and design. The Plaintiff claimed that Defendant, having learned of the imminent publication of the Plaintiff’s books “Unsafe at any Speed,” decided to conduct a campaign of intimidation against him in order to suppress the Plaintiff’s criticism of and prevent his disclosure of information about its products. The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant’s agents: (1) questioned the Plaintiff’s acquaintances about the Plaintiff’s social, racial, religious and sexual views; (2) kept the Plaintiff under surveillance in public places for an unreasonable amount of time; (3) cause him to be accosted by girls to trap him into illicit relationships; (4) made threatening, harassing and obnoxious telephone calls; (5) tapped his telephone and eavesdropped on private conversations by using mechanical and electrical equi
pment and, (6) conducted a continuing and harassing investigation of him. The Plaintiff sued the Defendant for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with the Plaintiff’s economic advantage. The Defendant’s motion to dismiss the invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims was denied. The Defendant appealed.
Issue. Did the Plaintiff state a legally sufficient claim against the Defendant for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress?
Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
* The tort of intrusion upon seclusion, dictates that one who intentional intrudes upon the solitude or seclusion of another is subject to liability to the other for invasion of privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
* Some intrusions into one’s private sphere are inevitable concomitants of life in an industrial and densely populated society, which the law does not seek to proscribe. Privacy is invaded only if the information sought is of a confidential nature and defendant’s conduct was unreasonably intrusive. There can be no invasion of privacy where the information sought is open to public view or has been voluntarily revealed to others.
* The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) cannot find any basis for a claim of invasion of privacy in the allegations that the Defendant interviewed many persons who know the Plaintiff. Information about the Plaintiff that was already known to others could hardly be regarded as private to the Plaintiff. Presumably, the Plaintiff had previously revealed the information to such other persons and he would necessarily assume the risk that a friend or acquaintance in whom he had confided might breach the confidence. Nor can the Supreme Court find and basis for a claim of invasion of privacy in the allegation that the Defendant caused the Plaintiff to be accosted by girls with illicit proposals, or that it was responsible for the making of a large number of threatening and harassing telephone calls to the Plaintiff’s home at odd hours.
* However, where severe mental pain or anguish is inflicted through a deliberate and malicious campaign of harassment or intimidation, a remedy is available in the form of an action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
* The allegation, which most clearly states a claim for invasion of privacy, is the charge that the Defendant engaged in unauthorized wiretapping and eavesdropping by mechanical and electronic means. It is uncontested that wiretapping and eavesdropping is an actionable invasion of privacy.
* The allegation that the Defendant hired people to shadow the Plaintiff and keep him under surveillance could possibly be actionable as an invasion of privacy. The mere observation of the Plaintiff in a public place does not amount to an invasion of his privacy. But under certain circumstances, surveillance may be so “overzealous” as to render it actionable. A person does not automatically make public everything he does merely by being in a public place and the mere fact that the Plaintiff was in a bank did not give anyone the right to try to discover the amount of money he was withdrawing.
Concurrence. (J. Breitel) It is inappropriate to decide that several of the allegations as they now appear are referable only to the more restricted tort of intentional infliction of mental distress rather than to the common-law right of privacy upon which the first and second causes of action depend.
Discussion. The wiretapping and eavesdropping claims have been expressly recognized as tortuous intrusion. Additionally, if the surveillance in public is so overzealous, it may be actionable. However, the Plaintiff’s other claims are not actionable as invasions of privacy because the information was available to the public or easily attainable.