While a harmless use or touching of personal property may be a technical trespass to chattels, an interference (not amounting to dispossession) is not actionable, under modern California and broader American law, without a showing of harm.
On six occasions over almost two years, defendant sent e-mails criticizing the plaintiff company's employment practices to numerous current employees on the company's e-mail system. Defendant breached no computer security barriers in order to communicate with the company's employees. He offered to, and did, remove from his mailing list any recipient who so wished. Defendant's communications caused neither physical damage nor functional disruption to the company's computers, nor did they deprive the company of the use of its computers. The contents of the messages, however, caused discussion among employees and managers. Plaintiff company sued defendant for tort of trespass to chattels. The trial court granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and enjoined defendant from any further mailings. The Court of Appeals affirmed. On review, the court reversed.
Did the facts presented during trial sufficiently warrant summary judgment in favor of plaintiff where defendant's communications caused neither physical damage nor functional disruption to the company's computers, nor did they deprive the company of the use of its computers?
The instant court concluded that the company did not present undisputed facts demonstrating an injury to its personal property, or to its legal interest in that property, that supported, under California tort law, an action for trespass to chattels. Regarding constitutional considerations, the principal of a right not to listen, founded in personal autonomy, could not justify the sweeping injunction issued against all communication to the company's addresses, for such a right, logically, could be exercised only by, or at the behest of, the recipient himself or herself.