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Single Racial Slur Not Enough to Prove Emotional Distress

Law books in a row
By George Khoury, Esq. on May 16, 2019 1:00 PM

A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision may leave quite a few people wondering just how in the world it is possible that a Domino's Pizza employee calling a customer the n-word doesn't lead to civil liability in court.

The case involved a customer of Domino's Pizza who received his pizza pie only to discover that it was burnt. He drove the pizza back to the store so that the pizza makers could make it right. When the employee refused to provide a refund or discount, the customer and the employee got into an argument, and the employee called the customer the n-word. The customer was rightfully offended by the employee's extreme conduct, and filed a lawsuit alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, which is a cause of action in many personal injury lawsuits.  

Not Distressing Enough in PA

Although the Pennsylvania courts did recognize that the term is highly offensive, and that the employee was wrong for using it, the court also explained that a single utterance, or the use of insults, during a verbal fight, does not rise to the level of legal liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress. That claim requires one person to act in a way that is extreme and outrageous, and for that action to cause another person severe emotional distress. And although some states may have other laws that could apply, this type of claim, often called IIED, is more common than you might expect.

The court rejected the customer's argument that the established precedent that was relied upon to dismiss his case was outdated. Although the court recognized that over the last few decades the n-word has taken on even stronger pejorative connotations and is now considered hate speech rather than an insult, it explained that only the state's Supreme Court, or the state legislator, could change it and the precedent was clear.

Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the state Supreme Court rejected his appeal, leaving only the U.S. Supreme Court, which only takes a small number of cases each year, as his final chance for an appeal. No statement has been issued as to whether a SCOTUS appeal is planned.

If you have suffered severe emotional distress due to the intentional actions of another person, talk to a personal injury lawyer to find out what your options might be.

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