Menace – – the (mostly) forgotten tort

Mississippi's tort of menace in civil suits

The tort of menace

A person filing a lawsuit for menace must do so within one year. But, exactly what is “menace”?

Mississippi case law on this tort is sparse. Further, unlike most torts, there does not appear to be any definitive elements to the claim of menace.

Rather, the best we can do is look at the different scenarios in which courts addressed this tort.

Interference with contract

In  Robinson v. Coastal Family Health Center, Inc., 756 F.Supp. 958 (S.D. Miss. 1990), the plaintiff alleged that the defendant tortiously interfered with his employment contract.

Although Mississippi recognizes an independent claim for tortious interference with contract, the defendant argued that the claim against her should be viewed as a claim for menace.

Specifically, the defendant took the position that the term “menace” connotes an intention to inflict harm by means of some gesture or statement. (She did this because she wanted the court to apply the one year statute of limitation.)

The district court agreed that the claim against the defendant could be characterized as “actionable menace,” although the court did not specifically adopt the definition suggested by the defendant.

Stalking

In Lynch v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 909 So.2d 1289 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005), Lynch was injured in an automobile accident. After she filed a claim, Liberty Mutual hired an investigator.

Lynch subsequently filed suit against Liberty Mutual and the investigator, claiming that the investigator was following her to such an extent that it amounted to stalking.

Although Lynch did not plead the tort of menace, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that Lynch’s claim was essentially one for menace and that the claim was barred by the one year statute of limitation.

Threats of criminal proceedings as “menace”

The Supreme Court provided the greatest guidance in Dennis v. Travelers Insurance Company, 234 So.2d 624 (Miss. 1970). In that case, the insurance company accused Pee Wee Dennis of intentionally damaging property insured by the company.

Travelers send a letter demanded a payment of approximately $200. The letter also contained a threat to pursue a criminal action if the money was not paid.

In response, Pee Wee filed suit and alleged a violation of Section 2365 of the Mississippi Code 1942, which provided:

Every person who shall knowingly send or deliver, or shall make, and, for the purpose of being sent or delivered, shall part with the possession of any letter or writing with or without a name subscribed thereto, or signed with a fictitious name, or with any letter, mark, or other designation, threatening therein to accuse any person of a crime or to do any injury to the person or property of any one, with a view or intent to extort or gain money or property of any description belonging to another, shall be guilty of an attempt to rob, and shall, on conviction, be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary not exceeding five years.

(That statute can now be found at Miss. Code Ann. Section 97-3-81.)

The issue on appeal was whether the claim was barred by the one year statute of limitation. In holding that it was, the Supreme Court first looked to the Webster’s International Dictionary, which defined ‘menace’ as a show of intention to inflict harm: a threatening gesture, statement, or act; threatening import, character, or aspect.

Using that definition, the court held that Travelers’ letter “falls squarely within the purview of the statute under the category of ‘menace’ as set out in the statute.”

As stated, the case law is limited, but it does suggest that the tort of menace can arise in a variety of situations. This can be helpful for a plaintiff’s attorney when the facts do not fit squarely within the definition of more traditional torts. It may also help defense attorneys invoke the shorter, one year statute of limitation.

Panter Law Firm, PLLC, 7736 Old Canton Road, Suite B, Madison, MS 39110.

601-607-3156.

www.craigpanterlaw.com

Craig Painter