Office Torts

This week, we tackled some heavy stuff in class; namely rape, consent, race, and the Fourteenth Amendment. I got cold-called four separate times (the highlight was a 30-min session where I laid out the prosecution and defense for a rape case) and we have a 20 page memo draft due tomorrow. I’m tired, and really don’t want to talk more about rape.

But outside school, I’ve noticed something weird happening. Really weird. For the first time, I’m seeing the class material in real life. Like, ALL THE TIME. Not murders or kidnappings, obviously – but torts. Torts. are. everywhere.

Torts are kind of like a younger, weaker brother to criminal offenses. A tort is an act (or sometimes failure to act) which either harms someone else, or violates the other’s legal right. After the action occurs, the person who was harmed can sue for it, and the courts can make the tortfeasor pay. Most of the time the wrongdoer pays a monetary damages, but sometimes the courts make them a) stop an ongoing harmful action or b) give back whatever they took.

You’ve probably heard of the “big ones,” like assault and battery, but the realm of torts also includes things like defamation, intentional infliction of emotion distress (IIED), false imprisonment and negligence. And I really do see a lot in the streets of Cambridge, and on the news. But there’s still one place that seems to have a tort every thirty minutes. Literally. And that is…

Bum bum badadada dummmm.

I truly can’t get through one episode without Michael (or Dwight, or Jim) performing some sort of actionable offense!

So in this article, I’m going to apply my classroom tort knowledge to the four corners of The Office. Three quick disclaimers: first, most of these scenarios aren’t truly “actionable” because there isn’t enough harm to warrant a suit. Second, each state has specific laws about these crimes, which likely differ from my broad definition (if you’re legal-minded, they’re from the Second Restatement of Torts). Finally, I’m going off just five weeks of tort knowledge here, so please don’t use this as solid legal advice!

ASSAULT

An actor commits assault if they act intending to cause harmful or offensive contact to another (or the appearance of harmful contact), and the other party is put in imminent apprehension of harmful contact. In other words, harm is NOT technically required. The actor just has to intentionally create a fear of harm, and the victim has to think he’s actually in danger.

A few prime examples: when Andy and Dwight dueled over Angela’s love, and Andy pinned Dwight between his car and the Office hedge – it sure seems like Dwight is scared! Also, when Michael agreed to let Pam hit him after dating her mom, and he flinched when she went for it the first time. Not speaking as a lawyer, but…can’t blame Pam for that one!

Look, Angela said she’d respect the outcome of the duel.

BATTERY

An actor commits battery if they intentionally cause offensive or harmful contact with another’s person, without the other’s consent. Battery can also be a criminal offense, but there it’s limited to actual physical harm.

Oh man, there are so many instances of battery. Michael spanking his nephew, Roy attacking Jim (if it had been successful), Jim stabbing Dwight’s blow-up ball seat and making him fall…to name just a few. Basically any time someone touches someone else on this show, battery results.

BATTERY II

Remember when the Office mates worked late and forgot to tell the security guard, so they all got locked in? Then, someone finds a football and Pam is trying to throw it at Andy when she accidentally hits Meredith in the face.

Classic mix-up. Mitch Trubisky, is that you?

Well, it’s intuitive that Pam might get charged with battery for that – but Andy could potentially be sued too! This is called “transferred intent,” and some courts hold both people involved in the action liable for battery. Moral of the story, pick your catch partners carefully!

FALSE IMPRISONMENT

An actor is liable for false imprisonment if he unlawfully a) acts intending to confine another person, 2) within boundaries set by him, 3) which results in actual confinement, and 4) the other person knows about the confinement. This ALSO happens more than once in The Office!

That one time Michael locked the pizza delivery guy into the conference room for hours – definitely false imprisonment. When Dwight locked his co-workers in for his “fire drill (probably falls under multiple torts – hello, Stanley had a HEART ATTACK) but it’s also F.I. And Golden Face holding hostages to trick Michael Scarn is absolutely (fake) false imprisonment.

TRESPASS TO CHATTEL

An actor is liable for trespass to chattel if he a) takes the chattel (thing) from the owner or b) uses the chattel in a way that interferes with the other’s ownership. In other words, taking other people’s stuff. In other other words, the basis for almost ALL of Jim’s pranks.

Stapler in jello? Yes. Michael’s “Best Boss” mug in jello? Also yes. Putting Dwight’s stuff in the vending machine? For sure. Holding Dwight’s bobblehead for ransom? Definitely. Taking Andy’s phone and throwing it into the ceiling? Yup. And Jan throwing a Dundie into Michael’s plasma screen tv? THE BEST!!!

TRAGEDY

Is not a tort, but remember when Kevin spilled his entire pot of chili???? A scene of misery to rival the Greek tragedies of old. R.I.P.

NEGLIGENCE

An actor is “negligent” if they act in a way that deviates from how a reasonable man would act under similar circumstances. Negligence is tricky for several reasons, but mainly because – who the heck is this “reasonable person?” But there’s one Negligence scene from The Office that stands out…

Michael running Meredith over with his car. He DEFINITELY wasn’t using the standard of care expected from a normal person while driving! Of course, this one’s on the company, but Michael = negligence incarnate.

DEFAMATION

An actor defames another when they a) negligently or maliciously b) publish a c) false d) factual claim against a specific person d) which causes that person harm.

This one was tougher to find than I expected! While some defamatory statements are thrown around, the “publication” element didn’t happen very often in The Office (at least, that I can remember).

“You can run, but you CAN’T HIDE”

The one that qualifies most is when Pam profiles the man who flashed Phyllis in the Office parking lot, and distributes the pictures around the neighborhood. Normally, no problem – but the man LOOKED EXACTLY LIKE DWIGHT! If his reputation had been harmed by that publication, he might have a claim for defamation against Pam and anyone who recognized that it was a spoof, but posted the flyers anyway.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

An actor causes IIED if he a) acted intentionally/recklessly b) in an “outrageous” manner c) which directly causes d) severe emotional distress to the other person. The benchmark of “outrageous conduct” is, truly, whether or not someone’s action would make a reasonable person go, “THAT’S OUTRAGEOUS!” So again…many, many moments of THAT in The Office. The part about “severe emotional distress” is harder to prove.

The two scenes I have in mind are when Michael outs Oscar, and kisses him in the process…obviously 1) this could fall under other torts too and 2) Oscar settled with Dunder Mifflin for vacation days, but still. Outrageous.

Secondly, the episode where Dwight created a Snowman Army after traumatizing Jim with snow all day. Obviously Jim was QUITE distressed, and honestly, going to those extremes seems…outrageous. Jim might also have a claim for outrage here.

IDENTITY THEFT

IS NOT A JOKE, JIM. MILLIONS OF FAMILIES SUFFER EVERY YEAR.

Okay, we actually don’t do fraud in Torts, and this one obviously wouldn’t hold up in court. But how amazing was this scene?!!

Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica.

Man, this was WAY more fun than my class discussions. I hope it was a little informative, but mostly just a good laugh for you all! And if you haven’t seen The Office, set aside some time to binge it – it’s an absolute gem.