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Caudle v. Betts - 512 So. 2d 389 (La. 1987)

Rule:

A harmful or offensive contact with a person, resulting from an act intended to cause the plaintiff to suffer such a contact, is a battery. The intention need not be malicious nor need it be an intention to inflict actual damage. It is sufficient if the actor intends to inflict either a harmful or offensive contact without the other's consent. The element of personal indignity involved is always given considerable weight. Consequently, the defendant is liable not only for contacts that do actual physical harm, but also for those relatively trivial ones which are merely offensive and insulting. 

Facts:

Plaintiff Ruben Caudle was employed as a salesman at defendant Betts Lincoln-Mercury in Alexandria, Louisiana. An office Christmas party was planned for the afternoon of Dec. 23, 1983. Shortly before the party some of the employees engaged in horseplay with an electric automobile condenser. They discovered that the condenser could be charged by touching one end on a car's sparkplug wire and turning the engine over. Once charged, the condenser would deliver a slight electric shock when touched at both ends. Several employees played catch with the charged condenser. Peter Betts, the president and principal shareholder of the dealership, joined in the activity. Although the facts were disputed, the trial court found that Betts shocked the back of Caudle's neck with the charged condenser and chased Caudle with it until he escaped by locking himself in an office. Caudle testified that following the incident he developed a headache and left the party early. In the following months Caudle had frequent and severe headaches and passed out 30 to 40 times. Conservative treatment in the form of nerve blocking shots was ineffective in permanently correcting these problems. Surgery severing the occipital nerve, performed on July 23, 1984, finally alleviated Caudle's headaches and fainting spells. The only residual effect of the surgery was a slight numbness on the right side of his head.

Caudle filed a lawsuit Louisiana state court against Betts individually and against Betts Lincoln-Mercury, Inc. Caudle sought damages for past pain and suffering, lost motion and enjoyment of life, past medical expenses, loss of earnings, and future damages for the permanent paralysis in his right scalp. After a bench trial, the trial court found that Betts intended to shock Caudle but did not intend to injure him beyond a momentary, unpleasant jolt. The trial court dismissed Caudle’s suit; the court of appeals affirmed.

Issue:

Did the lack of intent to inflict actual damage on Caudle render Betts immune from liability?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court reversed the lower courts' judgments, finding that those courts mistakenly concluded that an intentional tort had not been committed. The court found that Caudle proved that a battery had been committed on him by Betts. The court also held that Caudle was entitled to recover for all injuries resulting from the shock, including the unintended and unforeseeable impairment of Caudle's occipital nerve. It was undisputed that Betts intended the contact to be offensive and at least slightly painful or harmful. The court held that the fact that Betts administered the shock as a practical joke and did not intend to inflict actual damage on Caudle did not render him immune from liability. Therefore, the court determined that Caudle’s tort action was not precluded by the exclusivity provisions of La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 23:1032.

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