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CA Court Rules on Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Under California law, emotional distress is a recognized category of injury that people can suffer and for which they can recover damages when it is negligently or intentionally inflicted by others. In Crouch v. Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana Inc., Cal. Ct. App. No. G055602, the court considered whether statements made by the plaintiff’s grandmother amounted to intentional infliction of emotional distress and whether the grandmother’s employer was liable for the resulting damages.

Factual background of the case

Carra Crouch was a 13-year-old girl who flew from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Georgia with her grandmother, Jan Crouch in April 2006. Jan Crouch worked for Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, and she was in charge of a telethon that was scheduled to occur in Atlanta. Carra was planning to visit her cousins, Nathan and Nick. While they were in route, Carra received a message from a man named Steve Smith, a 30-year-old man who worked for Trinity Christian Center. Carra had previously been introduced to Smith by her two cousins, and Smith told her he hoped that he would get to see her during her visit.

One evening while Carra and her grandmother were in Atlanta, Smith made advances to Carra at the hotel’s swimming pool. She did not understand what he was doing. She returned to the hotel room that she was sharing with Nathan and Nick. Smith knocked on the door and asked if he could crash in their room. He brought alcohol and cigarettes, and he ordered champagne from room service. Carra, Nathan, and Nick all drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes that were given to them by Smith.

Carra had never drunk or smoked before. She drank a glass or two of champagne before laying down on her bed. Smith lay down on the floor. After a while, Smith said he was uncomfortable and asked Carra if he could lay down on the bed next to her. Carra said she felt uncomfortable, but she agreed as long as a pillow was kept in between them. Smith moved the pillow and tried to pull her up next to his body. She got out of bed, said she didn’t feel well. Smith then went to the bathroom and returned with a glass of water. He handed it to Carra and told her to drink it, saying that it would make her feel better.

Carra said the water tasted a little strange, but she drank it. She didn’t remember anything after that. In the morning, she woke up with Smith on the bed next to her. Her clothes were messed up, and her pants had been removed. She went to the bathroom and saw that she had a little blood in her vaginal area and felt sore. She had not started menstruating yet.

Once Carra returned to California, she told her mother, Tawny Crouch, about what had occurred. Her mother took her to see Jan Crouch and encouraged Carra to tell her what had happened. On April 24, 2006, Tawny drove Carra to her grandmother’s home in Newport. Carra asked her mother to tell Jan what happened because she was uncomfortable talking about her rape. When Tawny started explaining the details of what happened, Jan became enraged, yelled that it was Carra’s fault, that she should not have drunk alcohol or let Smith into her room, and that Carra let it happen. She also told Carra that she was stupid.

Carra went out to the car. Jan continued yelling at Tawny and told her she couldn’t handle it. She told Tawny to call Dottie Casoria, who was Jan’s sister and the manager of the TCC branch in Atlanta. Carra broke down emotionally in the car and her room after they returned home.

Tawny called Dottie, who was supportive. She explained what had happened to Carra to Dottie and TCC’s general counsel, John Casoria. Casoria asked Tawny and Carra to write a statement about what happened. Tawny told him that she did not want to report the matter to the police. Carra’s parents did not report what happened to the police or take her to get a rape examination. Casoria conducted an investigation and terminated Steve Smith’s job. He also notified the Georgia Department of Labor that the reason for Smith’s termination could result in civil liability and criminal charges.

Following the rape, Carra was very troubled. She began cutting herself and huffing carbon dioxide. She saw a therapist for emotional problems. Carra was promiscuous, drank, used drugs, and had three pregnancies as a teen that resulted in two abortions and one miscarriage. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and child sexual abuse trauma. Carra filed a lawsuit against TCC, Jan Crouch, and Casoria in 2012. Jan Crouch passed away after the lawsuit was filed.

TCC filed a motion for summary judgment for Crouch’s claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. It argued that Jan Crouch’s conduct was not extreme as a matter of law and that she did not intend to inflict emotional distress. The court denied the motion for summary judgment and found that it was a matter for the jury to determine. During the trial, TCC moved for a nonsuit, arguing that Carra could not prove that Jan Crouch intended to inflict severe emotional distress on her when Carra and her mother went to her home after hours. The court denied the motion. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Carra for $2 million. TCC filed a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which was denied. It also filed a motion to vacate the judgment and for a new trial. The court granted a new trial as to the damages, finding that $2 million was excessive. The court stated that a new trial would occur unless Carra would accept a remittitur of $900,000, which she agreed to accept. TCC filed an appeal of the denial of a new trial, the denial of the JNOV, and the denial of the summary judgment motion.

Issues: 1)Whether Jan Crouch’s conduct was extreme and outrageous and had the intention to cause severe emotional distress; 2) Whether Jan Crouch was working in the scope and course of her employment at the time of the alleged IIED?

TCC argued that Jan Crouch’s conduct when Carra and Tawny told her about the rape was not extreme or outrageous. It also argued that Jan Crouch did not intend to cause severe emotional distress to Carra. Finally, it argued that Jan Crouch was not working in the scope and course of her employment at the time of the incident, meaning that TCC was not liable for her conduct. The plaintiff argued that Jan Crouch lived in a home owned by the ministry, was working as a member of the clergy during the Atlanta trip and when Carra Crouch went to speak with her on the night that her rape was revealed.

Rules: 1) Conduct is extreme and outrageous when it goes beyond the bounds of human decency; 2) Employers are vicariously liable for the negligent and wrongful acts of their employees when they are working within the scope and course of their employment.

In California, a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress requires plaintiffs to prove the following three things:

  • The conduct of the defendant was extreme and outrageous for the intent of causing the plaintiff to experience emotional distress or in reckless disregard of whether it might do so.
  • The plaintiff suffered serious emotional distress.
  • The plaintiff’s emotional distress was caused by the defendant’s conduct.

Conduct is considered to be outrageous if it goes beyond the bounds of human decency. Employers are liable to pay damages for the wrongful and negligent acts of their employees who are working in the course and scope of their jobs at the time of their actions.

Analysis

The court began by analyzing Jan Crouch’s statements to Carra Crouch when Tawny told Jan about Carra’s rape by looking at section 46 of the Restatement of Torts at comment d. This comment explains the rule about what outrageous conduct is and says that it only includes actions that would cause others to feel resentment and to exclaim that it was outrageous. As we have previously explained, to prove a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress in California, plaintiffs must be able to prove the following elements:

  • Outrageous conduct
  • Intent or gross negligence
  • Severe emotional distress
  • Causation [2]

Trinity Christian Center argued that Jan Crouch’s conduct was not outrageous and was simply a grandmother reacting to the news that her 13-year-old granddaughter had drunk alcohol and had been raped. The court found that her conduct was outrageous because Carra was only 13 years old, had been drugged and raped, and her grandmother reacted by calling her stupid and telling her it was her fault.

The court looked at the denial of TCC’s demurrer as to vicarious liability. It found that Jan Crouch was working as a clergyperson for TCC at all times and that Carra Crouch was raped by a TCC employee. It found that those were sufficient grounds to find that TCC was vicariously liable for the actions of Jan Crouch.

Conclusion

The court denied all of Trinity Christian Center’s grounds for appeal and affirmed the orders of the trial court. Trinity Christian Center was ordered to pay all of the costs for the appeal.

Get help from Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers

If someone else engaged in outrageous actions that caused you to experience severe emotional distress, you may have grounds to file a lawsuit. Contact the law firm of Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers to schedule a free consultation by calling us at 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2019/g055602.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2019-09-20-personal-injury-dd49ebe3b3&utm_content=text-case-title-4

[2] https://www.victimslawyer.com/blog/california-law-on-emotional-distress/

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