Defense Against Outrage and the Perils of Parasitic Torts
105 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2010 Last revised: 30 Apr 2011
Date Written: April 28, 2011
In Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court will soon weigh whether protestors at a slain soldier’s funeral committed the tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) or engaged in protected speech. Imagine that Mr. Snyder, the IIED plaintiff and soldier’s father, had, rather than bring a tort claim, used physical force to defend himself from the arguably tortious conduct of Phelps and his crowd. Can force be used to defend against intentional extreme or outrageous conduct threatening a person with severe emotional distress? The answer in the case law and articulated doctrine appears to be “no.”
Two prominent narratives in tort law scholarship address the increasing recognition of claims for loss of emotional tranquility and the expanding privilege to use force in defense of self and others. This Article explores a puzzle in tort law that challenges these traditional accounts. The law permits the use of force to protect dignitary interests, in the case of offensive battery and assault, but seems to deny the use of force to protect against IIED. No basis for this distinction appears in the leading theoretical accounts of tort law – economics, corrective justice, and civil recourse theory. Rather, the basis of the rule seems to be the childhood maxim, “Sticks and stones…,” without strong theoretical or policy justification.
Two implications arise. First, the law continues to privilege physical security above emotional well-being. Second, although it is arguably the most successful “new” tort of the twentieth century, IIED remains a tort whose boundaries are murky and whose place in tort doctrine is unclear. The parasitic nature of IIED has complicated the effort to build clear doctrine around all but the most essential elements of the claim.
Keywords: Torts, IIED, Self Defense
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