Halloween Edition: Can These Scary Pranks Get You Sued?

Halloween is almost here and at The Reeves Law Group, it’s one of our favorite holidays! To get you in the Halloween mood, here are some of the craziest, scariest and funniest pranks of all-time.

Scary pranks like this can be entertaining to watch, even sidesplitting. They may even be fun for unsuspecting targets. After all, lots of people enjoy haunted houses, horror movies, scary video games, and seek out excitement in the form of manufactured terror.

But just imagine the possibility of things gone awry. Someone runs away in fear from a flying ghoul or a made-up zombie and falls, seriously injuring himself. A woman with a heart condition has a heart attack when confronted by a giant spider chasing her in the night. Maybe the costumed actor who looks too convincingly like a crazed axe murderer is injured when an unsuspecting target fights back or even shoots back. These sorts of pranks have the potential of inflicting physical injury and even emotional distress on innocent victims, such as giving them sleeplessness, anxiety, nightmares, etc. Or imagine pranks that deliberately cause emotional distress in victims, such as falsely telling a parent that their child has died in a car accident and filming their reaction.

Can these pranks subject the pranksters to tort liability?

Of course. For this reason, some speculate that many of these prank videos are staged using actors. Someone who’s injured because of a prank could sue for a gamut of civil law causes of action, including negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, and even battery if contact is made with the person’s body. If these pranksters aren’t using actors who have signed liability releases, then they are counting on luck that nobody gets injured.

In addition, there is a doctrine in tort law known as the “eggshell skull” or “eggshell plaintiff” rule. It basically means that you take your victim as you find him or her, even if your victim is particularly sick or injury-prone. It also means that it is not a defense that most other people would not have been injured by your prank. For example, let’s say you create a prank where a life-like giant snake is unleashed near a person who happens to have a severe, pathological fear of snakes, and that person panics and runs into traffic where he is hit by a car. While the vast majority of people may not have panicked in a similar fashion or run into traffic, the  “eggshell skull” rule states that your liability to the victim is not lessened simply because the victim was particularly sensitive to snakes. The same goes for scaring someone with a heart condition — it does not matter that most other people wouldn’t have a heart attack because of your prank.

What About Emotional Distress Damages?

You might be thinking that lots of people would experience emotional distress if they were the unwitting victim of one of these pranks, especially the more gruesome ones. However, the threshold for recovering emotional distress damages, even when the action causing the distress was intentional, is fairly difficult to meet. In civil law, emotional distress includes all highly unpleasant mental reactions, such as fright, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, mortification, shock, humiliation and indignity, as well as physical pain.

“Conduct to be outrageous must be so extreme as to exceed all bounds of that usually tolerated in a civilized community.” (Davidson v. City of Westminster (1982) 32 Cal.3d 197, 209.) “[L]iability ‘does not extend to mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities… There is no occasion for the law to intervene . . . where someone’s feelings are hurt.’ ” (Agarwal v. Johnson (1979) 25 Cal.3d 932, 946, quoting Rest.2d Torts, § 46, com. d, overruled on other grounds in White v. Ultramar, Inc. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 563, 579—580.) Thus, merely suffering some momentary shock and hurt feelings is generally not enough to hold a prankster liable for emotional distress.

However, behavior may be considered outrageous if a defendant (1) abuses a relation or position that gives him power to damage the plaintiff’s interests; (2) knows the plaintiff is susceptible to injuries through mental distress; or (3) acts intentionally or unreasonably with the recognition that the acts are likely to result in illness through mental distress. (Molko v. Holy Spirit Ass’n (1988) 46 Cal.3d 1092, 1122.) Thus, if a prankster knows that his victim is particularly susceptible to mental distress and targets the victim accordingly, the victim is more likely to recover for emotional distress damages.

What do you think? Are these pranksters cruel or just out for a harmless laugh? Should they pay if and when someone gets injured because of their pranks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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