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Family Has Strong Tort Actions in Clementi Suicide Case

October 1st, 2010 No comments

The horrible tragedy of Tyler Clementi’s suicide — doubtless precipitated by the cruel acts of a classmate in taping the young man’s private sexual activity, then posting it on the internet — has stirred an animated and at times angry debate over the appropriate criminal sanctions. The acts are clearly crimes in themselves (with five years’ imprisonment the stiffest penalty for the unconsented posting), but some have asked, rightly, whether the actions could also be charged under the law of involuntary homicide.

While this would be difficult, it’s not impossible: the prosecution would have to prove that the actions were reasonably foreseeable as a result of the bullying. Not so easy to establish, and I’m guessing the prosecutor will shy away from a case that’s so hard to prove. And I’m not sure that I think that punishment would really fit the crime.

But…I’ve not yet seen much discussion of the Clementi family’s civil law remedies. Under the law of torts, Clementi had claims for invasion of privacy (for both the intrusion on his seclusion, as the tort is called, and for the publication of private facts) as well as for the tort of either intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress (the former is the much stronger case here). Under the law in most states, these claims passed to his estate (probably his parents) upon his death.

The death itself is actionable as a wrongful death, allowing certain classes of beneficiaries (his parents, possibly any siblings) to recover for the value of his life to them. (Such damages include any actual cash value they could have expected to receive, and, in many states, any emotional loss as well.)

Finally, since the actions were intentional and especially egregious, punitive damages (to punish and to deter future, similar wrongdoing) might also be available.

Of course, Tyler’s parents may not wish to pursue these remedies, legitimately thinking that doing so would force them to relive the tragedy and details they’d sooner forget. But the claims are there, and the tort law, like the criminal law, can serve as a powerful deterrent to the next idiot who thinks this kind of thing is funny.

Here’s a photo of the late Tyler, doing what he loved:

tyler-clementi-violinist-musical-genius.jpg