Torts

Grandmother's Tirade to 13-Year-Old Granddaughter, Blaming Her for Being Raped, Leads to Tort Liability

The California Court of Appeal upheld a $900,000 intentional infliction of emotional distress verdict against the grandmother, who had cofounded the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Crouch v. Trinity Christian Center (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 12):

Carra Crouch, at age 13, was drugged and raped by a 30-year-old employee of Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, Inc. (TCC) while she was in Atlanta, Georgia to participate in a TCC-sponsored telethon. When Carra returned to California, she and her mother, Tawny Crouch, went to see Carra's grandmother, Jan Crouch, who was a TCC officer and director and was responsible for overseeing the telethon. When Tawny explained to Jan Crouch what had happened to Carra in Atlanta, Jan Crouch flew into a tirade and yelled at Carra that she was stupid, it was really her fault, and she was the one who allowed it to happen. Carra was devastated.

Based on Jan Crouch's conduct, the jury awarded Carra $2 million in damages (later remitted to $900,000) against TCC on her cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). The jury found that Jan Crouch was acting within her authority as an officer or director of TCC when she yelled at Carra. TCC appealed….

At each stage of the trial court proceedings, and again on appeal, TCC has argued that Jan Crouch's conduct was not extreme or outrageous but was just a grandmotherly scolding or irascible behavior. According to TCC, Carra endured nothing more than insults, petty indignities, and annoyances.

We conclude that Jan Crouch's behavior toward Carra was sufficiently extreme and outrageous to impose liability for IIED. Yelling at 13-year-old girl who had been drugged and raped that she was stupid and she was at fault exceeds all possible bounds of decency. By telling Carra she was at fault, Jan Crouch displayed a reckless disregard for the almost certain emotional distress Carra would, and did, suffer….

The grandmother's behavior described in the opinion indeed seems outrageous to me; but I remain quite skeptical about the intentional-infliction-of-emotional-distress tort, in part because I think the terms "outrageous" and "exceeds all possible bounds of decency" is too vague for the law, even when it comes to civil liability and not just criminal punishment. It will be interesting to see what future cases there will be in this genre, based on family behavior that is less extreme but that some judge or jury might still find highly offensive.

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  1. based on family behavior that is less extreme

    In this case, the grandmother was seen to be acting as the employer responsible for the event where the girl was raped and it appears TCC that was penalized. So in some legal sense, it’s not “family” behavior.

    Obviously, family was involved. But the “family” also acting as employer responsible for care of the minor employees is not common in most family disputes.

    1. If the granddaughter and daughter visited the grandmother in her official capacity is TCC founder, they were damned fools to do so without their lawyer present.

      Ergo, they acted as if they were visiting her in her capacity as grandmother, not TCC representative.

      1. Oh, bullshit. That’s not a required standard for reports of employee misconduct to employers in any other setting. You do not, for example, have to have a lawyer with you every time you ask to see the manager at a restaurant to complain about bad service. (Yes, being raped is much more serious than having a waiter spit in your soup – but the severity of an abuse does not suddenly create a different legal standard.) The decision to not bring a lawyer could have come from many different motives. That mere fact does not and can not be used to prove that the visit was “in her capacity as grandmother”.

        1. Riiiight. So if somebody is raped by a MegaCorp employee in a MegaCorp building at a MegaCorp function, they go to the president of MegaCorp to complain and not the police? How many times has that happened that you are aware of?

          1. To my personal awareness? Two. For abuses lesser than rape? Rather a lot more. In both of the rape allegations (and many of the lesser abuses), the victim had personal reasons for not wanting to go to the police but nevertheless wanted to report the incident to “somebody in charge”.

            Again, that’s my personal awareness. I am quite sure that it happens lots more than that. EEOC filings are full of such allegations.

            1. Then they were idiots, possibly distraught idiots, but idiots nevertheless; or they were thinking of blackmail. Or maybe you think they were going to the boss as a friend?

              1. Even if I accepted your offensive characterization that they were “idiots”, there isn’t a broad, general rule that anyone who acts like an “idiot” forfeits their right to expect anyone else to follow the law and not commit torts.

                Yes, there is a partial “plaintiff was an idiot” defense in negligence law (comparative negligence reduces the recovery), but that’s limited to negligence. It doesn’t apply to intentional infliction of emotional distress.

              2. No, they were not idiots. They were smart, well-educated people who had what they thought were compelling reasons. If you were in their shoes, you might not make the same conclusions. That doesn’t make them idiots and you some kind of genius. Knowing some of the extenuating circumstances, I honestly don’t know which decision I would have made in their shoes.

                Your comment does, however, highlight that you are an insensitive jerk lacking in one or more of empathy, experience or imagination. Real lives are more complicated than whatever simplified fantasy you are projecting onto the facts.

              3. I don’t understand why they were idiots. What were they risking exactly? Are you saying they could have made more money if they’d brought a lawyer? I’d think the employee would be far more guarded and ass-covering if a lawyer was present.

                I’d say the grandmother was the idiot for not having a lawyer present when engaging in her ridiculous attack on the young girl.
                A lawyer might have stopped her from being an idiot who exposed the company to a law suit

          2. If we replace “megacorp” with “university/college”, it happens all the time.

    2. I was struck by the same comment that you quote, as well as the headline of the post, and the caption after the headline. Volokh appears to be framing the case in the same way that TCC sought to frame it, which the court explicitly rejects in the opinion.

      “TCC presents Jan’s conduct as merely a grandmotherly scolding or a display of “irascible temper” and asserts the entire incident was simply an emotional family squabble that should not be the subject of litigation. TCC resorts to hyperbole, saying “[i]t is no overstatement that the floodgates of litigation would bust open, dominating the dockets of our already burdened civil courts to adjudicate such family disputes over purely verbal insults.” That is very much an overstatement. But more to the point, we are not addressing an IIED claim based on a family squabble: Jan might have been Carra’s grandmother, but the jury found that when Jan flew into her tirade on April 24, 2006, she was acting in her capacity as an officer or director of TCC. … Because Jan Crouch was acting in her capacity as an officer or director on April 24, 2006, her behavior on that day was not merely part of a family squabble” (pgs. 15-16).

      The headline of the post is certainly not untrue; Jan Crouch was in fact Carra’s grandmother, just as she was in fact an officer and director of TCC. But the verdict was not against Jan Crouch in her capacity as grandmother, rather it was in her capacity as an officer or director of TCC. In the special verdict form (p. 10) the jury first finds that Jan Crouch “was acting within the course and scope of her authority as an officer or director of TCC.” The next three findings, related to Crouch’s conduct, are each prefaced with “Jan Crouch, while acting within the course and scope of her authority as an officer or director of TCC …”

      I’m not sure exactly what is meant then by “future cases in this genre, that is based on family behavior.”

      It would seem more accurate to say “The California Court of Appeal upheld a $900,000 intentional infliction of emotional distress verdict against the director and cofounder of Trinity Broadcasting Network, who was also the plaintiff’s grandmother.”

  2. “… too vague for the law,”

    How about a renaming and redefinition of the terms then.

    1. Reading the ruling, the law has existed for a while. Courts have been applying what is “outrageous” and so on and even have precedents trying to delineate where the line is. Of course that doesn’t mean the rule isn’t actually too vague. But this doesn’t seem to be the first time a judge has interpreted that wording.

    2. Well, I’m defending a b.s. suit by a pro se plaintiff, suing 15 people, a couple municipalities, and unknown police officers for conspiring to do him various harms, with an IIED kicker. The other claims are easy enough to get rid of, because they have more or less objective elements that have not been pleaded. (This a state “fact pleading” jurisdiction.) But researching IIED show it is all over the place–stuff that made my hair stand on end–no biggie, says the court and dismisses. Meanwhile, stuff where I think “oh, c’mon” passes muster. This case will get dismissed regardless, cause it is so dumb, but with what appears to be at best a dotted and zig-zag line, it is really tough to discern what constitutes the tort.

  3. Let’ s not kid ourselves, the bad grandmother was punished because she led a Christian company.

    I am ok with the result because she was both a bad grandmother and a bad Christian but if she was, for instance, a Planned Parenthood exec, the result would have been very different.

    1. Oh sheesh.
      *The grandmother was in charge of overseeing the event.
      * the representative of TCC who one was to report something that happened at a TCC event. Evidently, she was the specific person to report this too.
      * as an employer, could have disciplined the rapist. (And lets face it: drugging and raping a 13 year old girl is a felony.)

      Given that they saw this as behavior by a company, not a grandmother, I don’t think the only reason the judge saw this as “bad” is because TCC happens to be a Christian company. It would be rather ridiculous if TCC could somehow insulate itself from liability for company behavior toward a minor by putting a relative in place to oversee interaction between the company and TCC.

      In my opinion, the grandmother is also a bad grandmother.

      I’m not making a judgement about whether she is a “bad Christian”. That is for others to judge. Perhaps in some sects this sort of behavior is considered “good”.

      1. Regardless of the religious aspects, the fact that the two visited the grandmother without a lawyer tagging along shows me they visited her as grandmother, not as TCC founder. If she had not been a relative, they’d have been fools to visit without a lawyer, or to visit at all and lot leave it to the police and prosecutor.

    2. Bob, that is a truly pathetic attempt to insert Christian victimhood into this.

      1. California jury and judges. So its a fair speculation.

        1. Really Bob?

          As Obama said, many people worship an awesome God in the Blue States.

          Heck, I wish California were filled with atheists and agnostics and skeptics. I am not a fan of organized religion.

          But California is full of religion. Many of the televised ministries originate from here. We have some of the biggest megachurches in the world. The Foursquare Gospel movement, one of the largest evangelical movements in history, was founded right here in Southern California by Aimee Semple MacPherson, one of the most colorful Christian preachers in human history.

          And our juries are full of religious people. Especially in a case like this– one side was, I am sure, careful to keep anyone who was a skeptic off of this jury.

    3. “the bad grandmother was punished because she led a Christian company”

      If the repetitive, vivid examples of how the Catholic Church was bankrupted and forced to close for a few bad incidents involving children (and, some would contend, systematic and widespread facilitation and concealment of sexual abuse of children) taught us anything, it is that Christians are persecuted in America.

      I blame the liberal-libertarian mainstream.

  4. Does anyone have a sense as to why no First Amendment concern was raised in this case?

    Snyder v. Phelps makes clear that the First Amendment can apply to Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress claims. And, while that holding turned on the public figure/concern distinction, some lower courts have still found First Amendment rights in private disputes. I can see some arguments the Plaintiff could make. There’s fighting words. And the precise contours of defamation as an unprotected category are ill-defined when it comes to speech on a matter of private concern. But it seems to me that an advocate could characterize the case as punishing Defendant for expressing an opinion. We generally think it is permissible to punish false statements of fact. But we don’t generally think that a person should be punished because they have expressed an offensive moral judgment. Given this, it surprises me not to see any reference to freedom of speech in the appeal.

    1. Not sure, but one of the big factors supporting the Phelps’s free speech claim was that most of their signs and chants were simply talking about how evil gay people are and the like, with relatively few (if any) actually directed at the Snyders. They were also fairly far removed from the Snyders. Here the distribution seems to be flipped, with the majority of the comments directed directly at the plaintiff and directly to her face.

      1. As Prof. Volokh has said for years, targeted one-on-one harassment stands in a very different constitutional stead from advocacy.

  5. There’s also the possible religious aspect where if you are raped, you shouldn’t have been floosying around tempting men.

    As terrible as that is as a sentiment, I don’t see how this would be double-stepping on religion and speech.

    Also it is an early warning sign of cracks in the banning of censorship. I will keep reiterating we need to stop “brain damage scans” as damage that justifies censorship.

    1. Pardon me, I can see how this would double-step on rights.

    2. I agree that the statement that rape victims shouldn’t have been floozying around, while incredibly misogynist and offensive, is protected speech when expressed as advocacy.

      But that’s very different from the issue of whether saying that directly to a rape victim is protected speech.

  6. “There’s also the possible religious aspect where if you are raped, you shouldn’t have been floosying around tempting men.”

    The opinion recounts an adult’s drugging and rape of a 13-year-old.

    Even in the context of superstition-based argument, your comment seems daft.

    1. Also, with respect to “floozying around”:

      1) The grandmother organizing the TCC telethon flew the 13 year old to the location of the telethon to participate in the telethon.
      2) Steve Smith, who is alleged to have drugged and raped the 13 year old girl worked for TCC, and presumably only learned about the where abouts of the girl through his TCC connections.
      3) The girls (likely minor age) cousins also may have worked for TCC (they were present in town during the time of the telethon.)
      4) The grandmother did not stay to supervise the young teen age (~13 year old) minors but appears to have left them all to their own, unsupervised- and potentially in the company of a 30 year old employee (Steve Smith, in this case.)
      5) After being dropped off by the grandmother in a location where they would be utterly unsupervised by any adults in anyway, for a sizeable amount of time– and especially over night the girl was drugged and raped.

      So, IF the grandmother’s (and TCC “boss”) idea is that the girl spending time unsurpervised with her cousins while TCC permits one of their employee’s access to the kids is the girl’s “floozying” …. ok. She may have a right to think that.

      But acting as a TCC employer (which the grandmother was), it is utterly inappropriate for her to decree that the “fault” associated with an adult male employees raping a 13 year old girl is due to her “floozying”.
      The reality is: the grandmothers own inattention to the need to chaperone and protect a 13 year old she’d brought to a TCC function is the “fault” that lead to her daughter’s being vulnerable to the rape. That it ultimately happened is the bad-luck of the draw. But the irresponsible person was the grandmother, not the granddaughter.

      This might not matter to the legal judgement. But this is a horrible grandmother.

  7. I find myself very uncomfortable subjecting intrafamilial conduct that consists entirely of speech the state disapproves of to tier liability merely because the state strongly and emotionally disapproves of the speech.

    The penumbra-of-the-first-amendment theory of privacy that extends from Society of Sisters, perhaps through Griswold, is that a core function of the family is to provide an alternative narrative to the one the state considers Orthodox. As people interviewed after the Velvet Revolution explained it, the state told them what was right. But our parents told us something different, and we believed our parents.

    The purpose of civil rights, particularly with respect to speech, is not to protect only the good people who say agreeable things. It doesn’t matter if I think the grandmother is right or wrong. She told her granddaughter what she subjectively thought was right. The fact that it hurt doesn’t decide the matter. Sometimes the truth hurts and is comfortable, and yet must be fully protected despite this.

    In order to avoid the specter of the state coming in and using its full force to punish parents who teach their children things it thinks unorthodox, In order to avoid the problem Pierce vs. Society of Sisters intended to avoid, I would consider this speech protected by the First Amendment strengthened (rather than being weakened) by being in the context of private intrafamilial relationships and familial decisions about the education of their children, where protection should, under a conservative reading of the old privacy cases, be at its maximum.

  8. That said, the behavior of TCC, the company, is potentially separable from the behavior of the grandmother as an individual and family member. A company does not get intrafamilial privacy protection. And after all it is legally a separate person. I would think there would be a line that would depend on the specific facts and circumstances, whether the grandmother was saying this on her own behalf, because she personally believed this and was acting based on what she believed was best for her granddaughter as a close enough relative to have privacy rights, or whether she was saying this acting as an agent of the company.

  9. A note to Professor Volokh: Your post says the court ruled against the grandmother. But the case is solely against the company, which was the only defendant. There was no decision against the grandmother as such. I think this is a potentially relevant factual error on your part.

    I personally think that various considerations – privacy, traditional common law norms regarding privileges for intrafamilial communications and decisions, etc. – create a potential for a legally relevant difference between the two. But whether I’m right or wrong on this, I’d suggest correcting your description.

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