Q. We got behind on our bills and a bill collector has been stopping by and
calling us day and night. The bill collector intimidates us, calls us names and
threatens to destroy our credit record. We are nervous wrecks. What may we do?
A. You may be able to make a case that the collector’s conduct is a tort, the
intentional infliction of mental distress. Courts recently have begun to recognize such
actions as extreme and outrageous conduct that someone else intentionally inflicts on you.
For you to recover damages, you must show more than hurt feelings. Without aggravating
(intensifying) circumstances, most courts have not allowed recovery if the collector was
merely profane, obscene, abusive, threatening or insulting. The collector would need to
have used outrageous and extreme high-pressure methods for a period of time. If the
collector touched you offensively without your consent, you might even want to consider
adding claims for two other intentional torts-assault and battery. You also might want to
consider a case against the collector’s employer. Just as employers are vicariously
(indirectly) liable for the negligent acts of an employee, employers can be liable for the
intentional acts of an employee. (See the “Consumer Credit” chapter for other
legal protection against debt collectors.) A court would need to determine whether the
collector’s particular conduct fell within the scope of his or her job.
Forms of Defamation
Defamation involves your reputation. If something is said or shown to a third person and
is understood by that person to lower your reputation, or keep others from associating with
you, you may have a defamation claim. Libel and slander are two types of defamation. To
recover for defamation, you have to prove that the information is false–truth is a defense.
Plaintiff’s consent to the publication of defamatory matter concerning him is a complete
defense as well.
Defamation generally is easier to prove if you are a private person. Courts treat public
officials and figures differently from private persons in deciding whether someone has
defamed them. Public figures must show that the speaker or publisher either knew the
words were false or was negligent in saying them. Courts have established certain
constitutional protections for statements about public officials. That is why they must
show that the speaker or publisher made the statement knowing it was false–or seriously
doubting its truth.
Q. What is the difference between slander and libel?
A. A defamation action for slander rests on an oral communication made to
another that is understood to lower your reputation or keep others from associating with
you. Libel generally is considered written or printed defamation that does the same thing.
Radio and television broadcasts of defamatory material today are nearly universally
Q. My late grandfather, who owned a textile factory, was called “unfair to
labor” in a recent book about the industry. Is that libelous?
A. While it can be libelous to write that someone is unfair to labor–or is a crook, a
drunk, or an anarchist–no defamation action can be brought for someone who is dead. If
your family still owns the factory and the same accusation made against your grandfather
was made against one of you, a defamatory action could be brought.
Q. I have a tax-return preparation business, and a neighbor recently told a
potential client that I did not know a thing about tax law. Isn’t that slander?
A. You might have a case. If someone says something that affects you in your
business, trade, or profession, you can recover in a slander action even without showing
actual harm to your reputation or other damages. You can do the same in three other
situations–if someone says that you committed a crime, that you have a loathsome
disease, or that a specific female is unchaste (impure).
Of course, you can recover in other slander cases, but in those you must show that
you were actually damaged.
Q. Are there defenses to defamation?
A. There are several defenses that will defeat a defamation claim. As mentioned
above, consent is one; truth is another. And certain persons and proceedings (such as a
judge in his or her courtroom, witnesses testifying about a relevant issue in a case, and
certain communications by legislators) are said to be privileged. They are protected from