When Can You Sue For Invasion Of Privacy?

A seldom used, but legitimate, personal injury claim is available for certain types of privacy invasions. Such claims frequently arise in the employment context. A person found liable for invading someone else's privacy can be made to pay compensatory damages for emotional distress and even punitive damages.

The Iowa Supreme Court has observed that the right to privacy “exemplifies the possessive and territorial view of privacy.” Conduct that intrudes on privacy gives rise to liability because it can cause a reasonable person mental suffering, shame, or humiliation inconsistent with the general rules of civility and personal autonomy recognized in our society. Privacy rights protect against acts that interfere with a person's mental well-being and intentionally expose the person when he or she is in an area where privacy would normally be expected. 

Iowa recognizes four types of invasion of privacy: (1) unreasonable intrusion upon the seclusion of another; (2) appropriation of the another's name or likeness; (3) unreasonable publicity given to another's private life; and (4) publicity that unreasonably places the other in a false light before the public. These four distinct forms of privacy invasion each represent an interference with the plaintiff's right to be left alone. Importantly, the cause of action for invasion of privacy imposes liability based on a particular method of obtaining information, not the content of the information obtained, or even the use put to the information by the intruder following the intrusion.  hus, proof that information obtained through an intrusion has been distributed to third parties is not required.

The first privacy invasion claim noted above, "unreasonable intrusion upon seclusion," is the most frequently asserted privacy claim. This form of invasion of privacy generally requires the plaintiff to establish two elements. The first element requires an intentional intrusion into a matter in which the plaintiff has a right to expect privacy. The second element requires the intrusive act to be highly offensive to a reasonable person. 

So what types of “intrusion” will support an invasion of privacy claim? There is no set definition, but examples of types of intrusive conduct can be drawn from various legal authorities. These examples include photographs or video of people in places where they'd expect privacy, such as bathrooms, hospital rooms, and bedrooms. Another common type of intrusion is unauthorized recording or listening in on private conversations, such as telephone taps. A guiding principle is that an offensive intrusion justifying an invasion of privacy claim occurs when the defendant performs an act that had the potential to impair a person's peace of mind and comfort associated with the expectation of privacy. Note that there need only be a potential, not an actual, intrusion.

Although a mere potential intrusion is sufficient to support a claim for invasion of privacy, there's an important exception to that applies to video and audio recording technology: A belief by a plaintiff that a person invaded his or her privacy by placing an apparent recording device in a private area does not establish an intrusion if the device was not capable of being configured or operated to transmit or record in any conceivable way. Consequently, in video and audio recording privacy cases, the plaintiff must additionally prove that the equipment was functional and actually capable of creating the potential for an offensive intrusion at the time the plaintiff believes that the intrusion occurred. 

Harley Erbe