Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interested Third-Party Cannot be Liable for Tortious Interference

In Palm Beach County Health Care District v. Professional Medical Education, Inc. v. Davis (4D07-4170), the Fourth DCA held that an interested third-party to a contract cannot be liable for tortious interference.

The court held the tortious interference claim failed because the interference was not unjustified, a required element of tortious interference.

The elements of tortious interference with a business relationship are: “(1) the existence of a business relationship, not necessarily evidenced by an enforceable contract, under which the plaintiff has legal rights; (2) the defendant’s knowledge of the relationship; (3) a n intentional and unjustified interference with the relationship by the defendant; and (4) damage to the plaintiff as a result of the interference.”..“For the interference to b e unjustified, the interfering defendant must be a third party, a stranger to the business relationship.” Id. at 386; Ernie Haire Ford, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 260 F.3d 1285, 1294 (11th Cir. 2001). A defendant is not a “stranger” to a business relationship if the defendant “has any beneficial or economic interest in, or control over, that relationship.”

Under Florida law, a defendant is not a stranger to a business relationship, and thus cannot be held liable for tortious interference, when it has a supervisory interest in how the relationship is conducted or a potential financial interest in how a contract is performed.


Under the law of tortious interference, the District is not a “stranger” to any contract that it ultimately will fund. As the caretaker of public money raised by taxes, the District has an interest in insuring that public funds are spent for a proper purpose and in seeing that the money is spent wisely and prudently. To allow the tort of interference to apply in this case would b e to discourage the District from being an aggressive caretaker of public funds.


This holding is consistent with the rationale behind the tort. The cause of action for tortious interference with a business relationship “recognizes that economic relations are entitled to freedom from unreasonable interference.” United Yacht Brokers, Inc. v. Gillespie, 377 So. 2d 668, 672 (Fla. 1979). The point of a business relationship is to advance the interests of the parties involved. Tortious interference protects the interests of parties to an agreement against interference by outsiders, who would not be liable otherwise for breach. In the case of an interested third-party, the contractual interests that tortious interference is intended to protect include the interests of the third-party with respect to the contract. See 2 Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts, § 449 (2001); RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 769 (1979). An interested third-party accused of tortious interference is essentially “interfering” with its own interests. This is not interference; it is freedom of contract.


On the defamation count, the circuit court properly granted Davis’s motion for directed verdict under McNayr. That case held that “executive officials of government are absolutely privileged as to defamatory publications made in connection with the performance of the duties and responsibilities of their office.”


Since the counts regarding the goals of the conspiracy—defamation and tortious interference—fail, so too the conspiracy count must fail. “The gist of a civil action for conspiracy is not the conspiracy itself, but the civil wrong which is done pursuant to the conspiracy and which results in damage to the plaintiff.” Liappas v. Augoustis, 47 So. 2d 582, 582 (Fla. 1950). “An act which does not constitute a basis for an action against one person cannot b e made the basis of a civil action for conspiracy.”

[Finally, in a footnote the court stated:] We note that another panel of this court recently applied the doctrine of absolute immunity to bar an action for tortious interference with an advantageous business relationship against a City and its employees. See City of Stuart v. Monds, No. 4D08-4740 (Fla. 4th DCA May 13, 2009). This would be a separate ground supporting a judgment for the District on the tortious interference count.


Post a Comment