242 N.W. 25 (Iowa 1932), 41307, Barnett v. Collection Service Co.

Docket Nº41307
Citation242 N.W. 25, 214 Iowa 1303
Opinion JudgeFAVILLE, J.
Party NameMARY BARNETT, Appellee, v. COLLECTION SERVICE COMPANY et al., Appellants
AttorneyE. A. Johnson and Chas. L. Benesh, for appellants. Donnelly, Lynch, Anderson & Lynch and Walter R. Hutchinson, for appellee.
Case DateApril 05, 1932
CourtSupreme Court of Iowa

Page 25

242 N.W. 25 (Iowa 1932)

214 Iowa 1303




No. 41307

Supreme Court of Iowa, Des Moines

April 5, 1932


Appeal from Linn District Court.--JOHN T. MOFFIT, Judge.

Action to recover damages for mental pain, anguish, and humiliation alleged to have been suffered by the plaintiff because of certain alleged wilful and malicious acts of the defendants in sending to the plaintiff a series of letters containing threats of various kinds and seeking thereby to secure from plaintiff the payment of a certain amount which the defendants held for collection. The cause was submitted to a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, and the defendants appeal.


E. A. Johnson and Chas. L. Benesh, for appellants.

Donnelly, Lynch, Anderson & Lynch and Walter R. Hutchinson, for appellee.



[214 Iowa 1304] FAVILLE, J.

Appellants conduct a collection agency in the city of Cedar Rapids. Appellee is a widow living with her two children, a son of sixteen and a daughter of eighteen. She was employed in a dry goods store in Cedar Rapids as a clerk and saleslady. The appellants knew that she was a widow living with said children, and that the wages which she earned were exempt to her. She became indebted to a coal company in the sum of $ 28.75. The appellants had said claim for collection, and in attempting to collect the same wrote a series of letters to the appellee. It is unnecessary that we set out the contents of said letters in this opinion.

It is frankly conceded by counsel for appellants "that the form letters sent to the plaintiff [appellee] might have been couched in a little more diplomatic and tender language." This is undoubtedly true. The letters were coarse, and a jury could readily find that they were vindictive. They contained threats of various kinds as to what the appellants would do in the event [214 Iowa 1305] that the appellee did not pay said claim. None of these threats had reference to physical violence or injury. The letters contained threats to sue, to appeal directly to appellee's employer, with the assurance that this would be successful, and "we will bother him until he is so disgusted with you that he will throw you out the back door." And again: "You will settle in full your account with the above through this office within the next five days or we will tie you up tighter than a drum." There is also a suggestion that the appellee was as bad as a criminal, and other similar matters.

The only damages sought by the appellee are for mental pain, anguish, and humiliation which she claims she suffered by reason of receiving said series of letters written by the appellants. It is alleged by the appellee:

"That each and all of the acts of the defendants as herein before alleged were done wilfully, maliciously and with the intent to extort from this plaintiff the payment of a claim which defendants knew could not be legally collected, and for the purpose of harassing, annoying, distressing, and worrying the plaintiff into the payment of same."

The evidence on behalf of the appellee tends to show that by reason of said letters she became nervous, and could not work, and could not rest; that she suffered mental pain and anguish; that she cried and was compelled to go to bed. The jury could have found that this condition was produced solely by the threats and other language of the letters. The evidence also tends to establish that after appellants were advised of the fact that the letters had affected appellee both mentally and physically they knowingly continued to send her other letters of the same character.

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Appellants present but one proposition on this appeal, and that is the question as to whether or not, under the record, the appellee has pleaded and proven any cause of action against the appellants. The appellants do not complain of the size of the verdict, not of any rulings of the court except on the one question as to whether or not appellee has stated and proven a valid cause of action. This question was properly raised in the court below.

There have been a multitude of decisions of the various [214 Iowa 1306] courts on the question of damages for mental pain and suffering caused by fright or other emotional shock. A reconciliation of all of the cases is impossible. We have had a like question before us in various forms.

We first give consideration to our own decisions.

In Mahoney v. Dankwart, 108 Iowa 321, 79 N.W. 134, it was claimed by the plaintiff that the defendant negligently set off a certain blast near the home of the plaintiff, which threw fragments of earth and rock upon the house of the plaintiff and cast plaintiff into an extreme fright and nervous disorder. The evidence showed without dispute that the plaintiff's fright was caused, not by the blasting, but by what she saw of its effect, particularly in the frightening of the plaintiff's mother, and we held there could be no recovery.

In Lee v. City of Burlington, 113 Iowa 356, 85 N.W. 618, we considered a case where the action was brought to recover damages for the death of a horse, it being alleged that the horse became frightened at a steam roller negligently operated on the streets of the defendant city. In the course of the opinion we said:

"As a general rule, no recovery may be had for injuries resulting from fright caused by the negligence of another, where no immediate personal injury is received. This is the settled rule as to human beings." (Citing authorities.)

And we said:

"* * * we see no reason why the same rule should not be applied to animals."

We affirmed the ruling of the trial court in sustaining a demurrer to the petition.

In Watson v. Dilts, 116 Iowa 249, 89 N.W. 1068, action was brought to recover damages for physical injuries produced by fright. It appeared in that case that the defendant wilfully and unlawfully came upon the premises occupied by the plaintiff and her husband, in the nighttime, entered the house, and stealthily went upstairs to the second story, and defendant and plaintiff's husband appeared to be in an encounter. The plaintiff became greatly terrified, suffered a nervous chill, and was prostrated, and suffered great mental pain and anguish and physical pain. We held that the petition setting up said facts stated a cause [214 Iowa 1307] of action, and that the demurrer thereto should have been overruled.

In Zabron v. Cunard Steamship Co., 151 Iowa 345, 131 N.W. 18, we considered a case where a ticket from Russia to the United States had been purchased in America for the plaintiff. The agents of the defendant company neglected to properly forward the ticket, and refused the plaintiff passage without said ticket. The plaintiff suffered delay and inconvenience and mental suffering because thereof. We said:

"We are of the opinion that this is not a case where recovery may be had for mental suffering, disconnected from physical impact or injury."

In Holdorf v. Holdorf, 185 Iowa 838, 169 N.W. 737, the plaintiff sued for damages caused by an alleged assault upon her by the defendant, which it was claimed resulted in a shock that produced a miscarriage. Defendant denied the assault and contended that plaintiff's injuries, if any, were due solely to fright. It appeared that the...

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