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Nickerson v. Hodges - 146 La. 735, 84 So. 37 (1920)

Rule:

Defendants can be held liable for inflicting serious mental suffering and humiliation even where they intend their actions as a practical joke.

Facts:

Miss Carrie E. Nickerson brought this suit against H. R. Hayes, William or "Bud" Baker, John W. Smith, Mrs. Fannie Smith, Miss Minnie Smith, A. J. Hodges, G. G. Gatling, R. M. Coyle, Sam P. D. Coyle, and Dr. Charles Coyle, claiming $15,000 as damages, alleged to have been caused in the form of financial outlay, loss in business, mental and physical suffering, humiliation, and injury to reputation and social standing, all growing out of an alleged malicious deception and conspiracy with respect to the finding of a supposed pot of gold. Subsequent to the filing of the petition, and before the trial, the said Miss Nickerson died, and her legal heirs, some 10 in number, were made parties plaintiff, and now prosecute this suit.

All of the defendants, save and except Miss Minnie Smith, William or "Bud" Baker, and H. R. Hayes, filed, in effect, a general denial, denying any knowledge of or connection with the matters out of which the alleged damages arose. These three defendants filed a joint answer, in which, after denying the injuries charged, or that there was any malicious or unlawful intent, admitted that they had fixed up an old copper bucket or pot, filled with dirt and rocks, and had buried it at a point where the said Miss Carrie Nickerson and her helpers would likely dig in search of an imaginary pot of gold; that she and her said associates had been, for several months, digging over the property of defendant, John W. Smith, on information obtained from a fortune teller in the city of Shreveport, and boarding at the home of the said Smith, father of the said Minnie Smith, without paying therefor, and generally acting in such a manner as to make themselves nuisances to the community; that the course adopted by these three defendants was for the purpose of convincing the explorers of their folly; that it was intended as a practical joke, and succeeded in accomplishing the purpose mentioned.

For some reason the case was allowed to remain on the docket of the lower court for more than three years before being tried, when it was finally submitted to a jury, and resulted in a verdict in favor of the defendants. After an unsuccessful motion for a new trial, plaintiffs prosecuted an appeal.

Issue:

Whether defendants can be held liable for inflicting serious mental suffering and humiliation even where they intend their actions as a practical joke?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed and found some of the defendants' liable for damages. It held that while the defendants likely intended what they did as a practical joke, and had no willful intention of doing any injury, they were aware that the injured woman had been the inmate of an insane asylum in the past and they inflicted serious mental suffering and humiliation on her. The court said it would have awarded the woman a substantial sum were she living, but the present plaintiffs, as her heirs, only required a nominal sum to serve the ends of justice.

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