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Slocum v. Food Fair Stores of Fla., Inc.

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A Landmark Case: Recognizing a New Tort for Emotional Distress

DREW, Justice.

This article delves into the significant case of Slocum v. Food Fair Stores of Fla., Inc. which resulted in the recognition of a new tort for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiff sought compensation for mental suffering and emotional distress, as well as consequential physical symptoms, namely a heart attack and the aggravation of pre-existing heart disease. These ailments were allegedly caused by a highly offensive remark made by an employee of the defendant’s store. The defendant’s employee responded to the plaintiff’s question about the price of an item by saying, “If you want to know the price, you’ll have to find out the best way you can * you stink to me.” Additionally, the plaintiff claimed that the language was used with malicious intent or gross recklessness, with the intention to cause significant mental and emotional disturbance.

The preliminary issue raised pertains to the sufficiency of the damages alleged. In this case, the direct harm suffered by the plaintiff was purely emotional or psychological, with physical symptoms being secondary. In the previous case of Kirksey v. Jernigan, Florida’s Supreme Court allowed for recovery of damages for mental suffering, even in the absence of physical consequences, when intentional or malicious torts were involved. However, the central question in this particular case remains unanswered: Does the defendant’s use of insulting language, as described, constitute an actionable invasion of a legally protected right, specifically the deliberate disturbance of emotional equilibrium?

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The appellant argues extensively in favor of recognizing the existence of a new tort: the intentional infliction of emotional distress. This case is the first of its kind in this jurisdiction, and thus, the appellant contends that our court should acknowledge this new tort.

After studying various references on the subject, it is evident that there is a prevailing opinion supporting the recognition of this tort. This is in contrast to the sometimes strained reasoning that is employed when liability for such harm is based on traditional tort theories. Notable sources endorsing this viewpoint include the annotation found in the 15th American Law Reports (A.L.R.), an article by Wade titled “Tort Liability for Abusive Language” in the Vanderbilt Law Review, an article by Prosser titled “Intentional Infliction of Mental Suffering: A New Tort” in the Michigan Law Review, and an article by Magruder titled “Mental and Emotional Disturbance and the Law of Torts” in the Harvard Law Review. Cason v. Baskin, 155 Fla. 198, 20 So.2d 243, 168 A.L.R. 430, quoted Section 4 of the Declaration of Rights in the Florida Constitution, which further supports the recognition of the tort.

The appellee argues that we are bound by the case of Mann v. Roosevelt Shop, Inc., where the court stated that the law does not provide redress for insult alone. However, this language clearly pertains to cases where an action in defamation is brought for injury to reputation, as opposed to peace of mind. We find no other direct opinions from our court that specifically address the present issue.

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The Restatement of the Law of Torts, 1948 supplement, includes a comprehensive provision on tort liability for verbal insults. Section 46, titled “Conduct Intended to Cause Emotional Distress Only,” establishes liability for individuals who intentionally cause severe emotional distress without any legal privilege to do so. This provision recognizes that the requisite intention exists when the act is performed with the purpose of causing distress or with knowledge that such conduct will almost certainly result in severe emotional distress. It is important to note that abusive language is merely one of the various means through which this tort can be committed.

Even if we assume, without making a final judgment, the legal soundness of this doctrine, an examination of its practical applications reveals that a clear distinction should be drawn between conduct likely to cause mere emotional distress and conduct likely to cause severe emotional distress. The latter should be the focal point in determining the viability of a cause of action.

In conclusion, the case of Slocum v. Food Fair Stores of Fla., Inc. signifies a groundbreaking milestone in the legal landscape. The recognition of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress represents a significant step forward, providing legal recourse for individuals who suffer severe emotional harm due to the intentional and malicious actions of others. This case sets a precedent that acknowledges the importance of protecting the emotional well-being of individuals in our society.


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