• Tennessee Supreme Court Broadens the Scope of Emotional Distress Claims
  • March 10, 2005 | Authors: Lela M. Hollabaugh; Mary Beth Thomas
  • Law Firm: Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, LLP - Nashville Office
  • On January 18, 2005, the Tennessee Supreme Court set forth a new legal standard for claims of reckless infliction of emotional distress. In the landmark case of John Doe et al. v, Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville, the State's highest court deleted the longstanding requirement that the outrageous behavior forming the basis of a claim for reckless infliction of emotional distress be directed at the plaintiff or have occurred in the presence of the plaintiff.

    In John Doe et al. v, Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville, two unnamed minor plaintiffs, John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, brought reckless infliction of emotional distress claims against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville based on allegations that a former priest abused them following his departure from the Diocese. The plaintiffs alleged that Diocesan officials had knowledge of the priest's abuse of several different children at different times while associated with the Diocese, knew that the priest would commit child abuse again, failed to properly investigate the incidents and report the priest to prevent further abuse, and concealed the priest's wrongdoing. The plaintiffs claimed that the Diocese's outrageous acts and omissions were sufficient to form the basis for a claim of reckless infliction of emotional distress. The Diocese contended that the plaintiffs claims were not actionable because the Diocese's alleged acts or omissions were not specifically directed at John Doe 1 and John Doe 2.

    In Tennessee, a claim of reckless infliction of emotional distress is based upon three elements: the conduct must have been reckless, the conduct must have been so outrageous that it is not tolerated by civilized society, and the conduct must have caused serious mental injury. Prior to this Supreme Court holding, Tennessee law also implied a fourth element: a claim of reckless infliction of emotional distress could only be brought if the outrageous conduct about which the plaintiff complained had been "directed at" the plaintiff or had occurred in the presence of the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals in the Diocese case adhered to this standard and upheld the trial court's ruling that even if the Diocese failed to report The priest when it should have, that conduct was not "directed at" John Doe 1 or John Doe 2 or at anyone with whom the plaintiffs had a close personal relationship. The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals summary judgment ruling, giving way for the plaintiffs to argue on remand that the Diocese was guilty of outrageous conduct and had recklessly inflicted emotional distress upon plaintiffs through its acts and omissions.

    This case is the first to remove the "directed at" requirement from reckless infliction of emotional distress claims. The Court stated in its rationale that by requiring the tortfeasor's reckless misconduct to take place in the immediate presence of a plaintiff of whom the tortfeasor is aware, the "reckless" conduct standard is effectively transformed into the "intentional" conduct standard. Thus, "to require a claim for reckless infliction of emotional distress to be based upon conduct that was directed at a specific individual would leave a gap in tort law where persons wrongly harmed would be deprived of a remedy."

    Although this may seem to open the floodgates for plaintiff's claims, the practical effect may be minimal due to the high standard that remains for a plaintiff to prove "outrageous conduct." As the Court explained, "to qualify as outrageous, conduct must be 'so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community'." Thus, the Court held, this "exacting standard" will protect against fraudulent and trivial claims.

    Through the years, Tennessee case law has reserved the "outrageous" designation for only the most extreme misconduct. Some examples of outrageous conduct have included: (1) a hospital showing a mother the body of her deceased infant that had been placed in a jar of formaldehyde; (2) a veterinarian's threat to kill a dog unless the dog's owners paid their veterinarian bill; and (3) a film developer covertly obtaining a photograph of a plaintiff without clothes and subsequently giving that photograph to the plaintiff's co-worker for display at the plaintiff's workplace.

    Because of the very high threshold required by Tennessee courts for a showing of outrageous conduct, it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court's holding in John Doe et al. v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville will have a major impact on the number of reckless infliction of emotional distress lawsuits filed. However, if an entity's or an individual's behavior does come close to crossing the "outrageousness" threshold, this recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision certainly increases the field of potential plaintiffs who can recover as a result of that behavior.