When Does a Neighbor Dispute Rise to an Actionable Claim for Outrage?

Author: Bryan D. Scholnick

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August 7, 2019 10:00am

Good fences make good neighbors.  This is not one of those stories.  Division III of the Washington Court of Appeals found that a neighbor’s actions, which most would agree were childish and annoying, were sufficiently outrageous and extreme to rise to the level of an actionable tort.  The Court upheld the trial court’s award of $40,000 for the tort of outrage.[1]

Mr. Patnode resided across from Mrs. Spicer.  Mrs. Spicer taught private piano lessons in her home, mostly to children.  After Mr. Spicer suffered a stroke and retired, Mrs. Spicer increased the number of piano lessons.  After the increase in lessons being offered, Mr. Patnode complained to the Spicers and the County about the increase in traffic, noise from car doors shutting and remotely locking, and headlights coming into his house.  In response, the County permitted Mrs. Spicer to teach piano lessons for up to five students per day from 2:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. between September and May.  This permit was later modified to increase the number of sessions.  However, this did not end Mr. Patnode’s complaints.

Having received no relief from the County, nor from his own suit against the Spicer’s and other actions, Mr. Patnode began parking his Ford F-250 diesel pickup by the Spicers’ home.  Mr. Patnode also had other vehicles park along the Spicers’ side of the street.  In addition, Mr. Patnode regularly and repeatedly remote-started his F-250 and set off its alarm when Ms. Spicer’s students and their parents walked by the F-250.  This frightened Mrs. Spicer and her students.

In addition to obtaining an anti-harassment order, Mrs. Spicer sued Mr. Patnode for intentional interference with their piano business and damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  At trial, Mrs. Spicer testified that Mr. Patnode’s conduct caused her severe emotional distress because she feared for her safety and the safety of her children and students. Mrs. Spicer testified that she suffered from anxiety and insomnia because of these actions.  Students’ parents testified about their fear and concern for their children’s safety because of Mr. Patnode’s actions.  The trial court did not find that Mr. Patnode’s actions caused any loss of business. However, the Court did find that Mr. Patnode’s conduct was sufficiently outrageous to constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The court awarded $40,000 in damages.  Mr. Patnode appealed.

On appeal, Mr. Patnode argued his conduct did not rise to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct as a matter of law.  In Washington, in order to prevail on a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff must show: (1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, and (3) actual result to plaintiff of emotional distress.[2]  This is otherwise known as the tort of outrage. The Appellate Court quoted the following language from prior Washington decisions on this tort:

“. . . 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.’”[3]  “Consequently, the tort of outrage ‘does not extend to mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities.’ In this area plaintiffs must necessarily be hardened to a certain degree of rough language, unkindness and lack of consideration.”[4]

After reviewing other Washington cases that discuss what conduct is sufficiently outrageous and extreme, the Court determined that, “what constitutes outrage is nebulous and difficult to define.”  Relying on the facts that Mr. Patnode’s conduct was (1) continuous, not occasional and (2) intended to cause emotional distress to force Mrs. Spicer to close her business, the Court affirmed the lower court.  The Appellate Court found that Mr. Patnode’s conduct was more than merely childish and annoying.  The Court found that the conduct “clearly exceed[ed] insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities.”  The court went on to determine the conduct would be utterly intolerable in a civilized community.

Additionally, the Court found that Mrs. Spicer actually suffered severe emotional distress.  It determined that “Mr. Patnode’s objective [was] to cause Ms. Spicer to suffer sufficient emotional distress so she would stop teaching piano lessons at her house. This objective could not be accomplished by mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities.”

A dissent was written.  The dissent questioned whether one can truly believe that remote starting a car or setting off a car alarm when someone is walking past is really an atrocious conduct.  “Mr. Patnode’s behavior was juvenile, childish, oafish, puerile, immature, infantile, and lame. It would not have even qualified as a bad junior high school prank in a less sophisticated time. He was annoying, but he was not outrageous.”  Many may agree with this thought.   Do these actions truly amount to a tort of outrage?

 

[1] Spicer v. Patnode, 443 P.3d 801 (Wash. Ct. App., 2019).

[2] Lyons v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, 181 Wn.2d 775, 792, 336 P.3d 1142 (2014).

[3] Reyes v. Yakima Health Dist., 191 Wn.2d 79, 91, 419 P.3d 819 (2018).

[4] Kloepfel v. Bokor, 149 Wn.2d 192, 196, 66 P.3d 630 (2003).

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