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Law School Case Brief

Brooker v. Silverthorne - 111 S.C. 553, 99 S.E. 350 (1919)

Rule:

Injury may be committed by threats and menaces of bodily hurt, through fear of which a man's business is interrupted. A menace alone, without a consequent inconvenience, makes not the injury, but to complete the wrong there must be both of them together. The remedy for this is in pecuniary damages, this being inchoate, though not an absolute violence. But the threat which causes the fear must be such as the law will recognize as adequate to produce the result. There must be just and reasonable ground for the fear, hence a vain or idle threat is not sufficient. It must be of such nature and made under such circumstances as to affect the mind of a person of ordinary reason and firmness, so as to influence his conduct, or it must appear that the person against whom it is made was peculiarly susceptible to fear, and that the person making the threat knew and took advantage of the fact that he could not stand as much as an ordinary person. 

Facts:

Plaintiff was night operator at the telephone exchange at Barnwell. That defendant called the exchange over the telephone and asked for a certain connection, which she promptly tried to get for him, but, upon her failing to do so, he cursed and threatened her in an outrageous manner. The language and threat of defendant put Plaintiff in great fear that he would come to the exchange and further insult her, and that she was so shocked and unnerved that she was made sick and unfit for duty, and had to take medicine to make her sleep. That for weeks afterwards, when defendant's number would call, she would become so nervous that she could not answer the call. And that her nervous system was so shocked and wrecked that she suffered and continues to suffer in health, mind, and body on account of the abusive and threatening language addressed to her by defendant. The plaintiff filed suit for damages worth $2,000 for mental anguish and nervous shock alleged caused by the abusive and threatening language of defendant over the telephone. The trial court ruled in favor of plaintiff and refused defendant's motion for nonsuit. 

Issue:

Was the plaintiff entitled to damages?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The court reversed the judgment of the trial court and held that the words of defendant were the expression of an intent to injure, not a threat, and, therefore, not civilly actionable. The court found that prior case law did not support a civil action based on mere words without a real intention to commit the harm spoken of. The court noted that threats were actionable when there were actual damages and when there was a reasonable fear that the threatened harm would occur. The court stated that a threat looks to the future and defendant's words did not express a threat to injure in the future. The court concluded that defendant's act was morally wrong, but not actionable in a civil court.

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