15 March 2012

Should Elaborate Fiction In A Personal Relationship Be Actionable?

The Illinois Supreme Court will decide whether the following circumstances state a legal claim for money damages:

Paula Bonhomme, a California woman who fell in love with — and tried to meet with — a firefighter she met online named Jesse Jubilee James.

That firefighter, though, was a creation of Janna St. James of Batavia, who met Bonhomme on a message board for the HBO show “Deadwood.” Over 18 months, St. James created a number of other online characters to buttress the firefighter’s story, before eventually killing him off by having him “die” of liver cancer.

Bonhomme sued, claiming emotional distress caused by St. James, and the case was argued before the state’s high court today.

St. James’ attorney told the justices that the fraud Bonhomme was claiming is only legally acknowledged in business relationships, not personal ones. A ruling that would expand similar fraud claims into personal relationships could raise a lot of questions, she argued.

“There is no aspect of business in the relationship,” argued Phyllis Perko, an attorney based in West Dundee. “This is very simply a personal setting.”

But Bonhomme’s attorney argued that fraud in personal relationships should be weighed on a case-by-case basis. In her case, Bonhomme spent as much as $10,000 in gifts and other expenses on the relationship, Saper said.

Is this a con to prey on someone else economically, or is it just a somewhat twisted bit of sophisticated play acting in a forum where it is unreasonable to rely on someone's truthfulness that is too harm to characterize in a non-vague way to permit legal remedies to redress?

Generally, claims for emotional harm, untethered to economic injury or physical injury are not actionable absent very narrowly defined circumstances that make such suits rare in practice. But, there are situations where suits for purely emotional harm are permitted, and there isn't much consensus on the systemic nature of the various situations where this is the case. Over time, the tendency has been for modern courts to be much less receptive to these suits than early 18th century courts. For example, only a handful of states still recognize heartbalm torts and crimes, and defamation cases based on harms to one's personal reputations have been narrowed (with criminal libel statutes like Colorado's frequently being repealed).

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