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Case Law Update: The Tort of Outrage/Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Posted Monday, July 8, 2019 by Christopher L. Thayer

The Washington Court of Appeals Division III recently addressed a case involving the tort of Outrage, also known as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in Spicer v. Patnode, No. 36065-2-III, June 25, 2019. Claims for Outrage are fairly rare as are reported cases which break down and analyze the elements. After reading the Spicer case, however, it certainly seems like an appropriate claim for the conduct engaged in by the defendant.

Patnode and Spicer are neighbors in Yakima County, Washington. Prior to the conduct giving rise to the Outrage claim, they had a long history of conflict over Spicer providing piano lessons in her home to children. In 2012, Patnode complained to Yakima County about Spicer’s piano lesson business. He complained of increased traffic, damage to a sprinkler, noise from car doors shutting and remotely locking and headlights coming into his house.

The complaints prompted Yakima County to require the Spicers to obtain a conditional use permit for their business. On July 11, 2012, the Spicers obtained a minor home occupation permit from Yakima County. The permit authorized Ms. Spicer to teach piano lessons for up to five students per day. Lessons were permitted from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, September through May. The permit required the Spicers to provide off-street parking for customers. Throughout 2012 Mr. Patnode continued to complain about Ms. Spicer’s business.

In December 2012, Mr. Patnode sued the Spicers and alleged that their piano business violated the restrictive covenants that applied to the neighborhood. In 2014, the Spicers prevailed on summary judgment. Mr. Patnode was ordered to pay more than $30,000 for the Spicers attorney fees and costs.

From 2015 to March 2016, Patnode began parking his Ford F250 diesel pickup truck along the sidewalk in front of the Spicer residence. During this time Patnode regularly and repeatedly remote-started his truck and set off its alarm when Ms. Spicer’s students and their parents walked by the truck. The conduct frightened Ms. Spicer and her students.

Later in 2016, Ms. Spicer petitioned for an anti-harassment order against Patnode. Based on evidence presented at the anti-harassment hearing, the court granted Ms. Spicer’s request and entered an anti-harassment order. The order prevented Mr. Patnode from parking vehicles on Ms. Spicer’s side of the street and required him to disable the remote start and alarm on his truck. Mr. Patnode complied with the order.

After receiving the anti-harassment order, Spicer filed a civil lawsuit against Patnode seeking damages for Outrage. The matter proceeded to trial. At trial, Ms. Spicer testified Patnode’s conduct caused her severe emotional distress and fear for her safety and the safety of her students. She testified Patnode’s conduct caused her insomnia and required her to take anti-anxiety medication. The trial court ultimately found in favor of the Spicers, awarding them $40,000 against Patnode. Patnode appealed.

To constitute the tort of Outrage, the conduct at issue “must be so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Reyes v. Yakima Health Dist., 191 Wn. 2d 79 (2018). Therefore, the “tort of outrage does not extend to mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities. . . plaintiffs must necessarily be hardened to a certain degree of rough language, unkindness and lack of consideration.” Kloepfel v. Bokor, 149 Wn. 2d 192 (2003).

In order to prevail on a claim for Outrage, the plaintiff must show (1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, and (3) plaintiff actually experiences emotional distress. Lyons v. US Bank National Assoc., 181 Wn. 2d 775 (2014).

The Court of Appeals in Spicer reviewed various reported cases involving claims for Outrage and concluded “[a]s the cases reflect, what constitutes outrage is nebulous and difficult to define.” The court went on to note:

First, to impose liability, the law requires the conduct to be so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency as to be utterly intolerable in a civilized community. . . Second, liability may not be imposed for mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities. . . And third, somewhere between these standards, the question of liability passes from a court of law to the trier of fact.

The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the trial Court’s decision and noted:

Had Mr. Patnode remote-started his truck occasionally to scare passing piano students, this would not be actionable. Rather, it would constitute a mere annoyance – a triviality. But this is not what Mr. Patnode did. Instead, he engaged in a course of conduct over a period of four months intending to cause Ms. Spicer sufficient emotional distress so she would stop teaching piano lessons at her house. He intended to achieve through harassment what he had been unable to achieve through legal means.

The Spicer case is illustrative of the perils of disputes between neighbors, which can spiral out of control and cause otherwise sane people to engage in behavior that is unreasonable. It should be noted the Spicer case is unusual and successful Outrage claims are rare. If you have questions about this case or about an issue with a neighbor, feel free to contact Chris Thayer at (206) 805-1494 or CThayer@PivotalLawGroup.com.