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Law School Case Brief

Freihofer v. Hearst Corp. - 65 N.Y.2d 135, 490 N.Y.S.2d 735, 480 N.E.2d 349 (1985)


Prima facie tort affords a remedy for the infliction of intentional harm, resulting in damage, without excuse or justification, by an act or a series of acts that would otherwise be lawful. The requisite elements of a cause of action for prima facie tort are (1) the intentional infliction of harm, (2) which results in special damages, (3) without any excuse or justification, (4) by an act or series of acts which would otherwise be lawful. A critical element of the cause of action is that plaintiff suffered specific and measurable loss, which requires an allegation of special damages.


The newspaper published articles relating to Wayne D. Freihofer’s divorce based on information obtained from confidential court records. Freihofer alleged the newspaper violated N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 235, which prohibited court personnel from allowing access to the court files in divorce actions. His invasion of privacy claim was brought under N.Y. Civ. Rights Law §§ 50 and 51. Both parties cross appealed from the judgment of Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Third Judicial Department (New York), affirming an order dismissing prima facie tort, abuse of process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims and denying a motion to dismiss an invasion of privacy claim.


Does the publication by a newspaper of an article relating to the details of court files in matrimonial proceedings rendered confidential by Domestic Relations Law § 235, give rise to a cause of action for (a) invasion of privacy under Civil Rights Law §§ 50 and 51(b) prima facie tort or (c) intentional infliction of emotional distress?




The court held the lower court properly dismissed Freihofer’s claims for prima facie tort and intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, it held Freihofer had also failed to state a claim for invasion of privacy. There was no common-law right of privacy. The Civil Rights Law afforded a limited remedy for commercial exploitation of an individual's name, portrait or picture, without written consent, however, it did not apply to the publication of newsworthy events. The critical factor was the content of the published article in terms of whether it was newsworthy, which was a question of law. Defendant's motive to increase circulation was irrelevant. N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 235 did not provide for an independent cause of action against those who published matter obtained in violation of the statute.

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