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.