Time Warp: September 6, 1985 (John McEnroe)

Posted by Ken Davidson on Sep 6th, 2010

On this day in 1985, the New York Supreme Court held that John McEnroe was not liable for threatening, and then taking a swing towards, a fan at the U.S. Open. In Schneider v. McEnroe, the court considered whether McEnroe was liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, and battery. During a match at the U.S. Open, a fan repeatedly cheered for McEnroe’s opponent. McEnroe confronted the fan throughout the match, asking him if he had anything better to do than cheer McEnroe’s opponent, if he was going to cheer McEnroe’s opponent all day, etc. After the fan answered that he was going to continue to cheer for McEnroe’s opponent and that he didn’t have anything better to do, McEnroe called the fan “a fuckin’ asshole.” After the fan continued to cheer against McEnroe, McEnroe shouted, “You are sick, you are sick, you are ill, you are ill. I want to fight you, fight me now, meet me later. I am going to get you.” Shortly after this tirade, McEnroe made a motion with his arm towards the fan, described by the court as “sw[inging] his left arm in an upward movement in what might be described as a left-handed bowler’s follow-through or 1/2 of a two-handed obscene gesture.” As a result of the gesture, some rosin was released from McEnroe’s hand; a speck landed in the plaintiff’s eye. The court found McEnroe’s behavior to be childlike, ill-mannered, and unimaginative, but not actionable.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress requires that conduct be “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” The court said that McEnroe’s behavior was “shabby,” but his conduct did not rise to the level required to satisfy intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Assault requires that the defendant be placed “in apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact.” Mere threats or words are not enough. The court said that there was no indication that the plaintiff had any doubts about his safety during these incidents. Therefore, McEnroe could not be held liable for assault.

Battery requires intentional contact that is harmful or offensive to the plaintiff. “Harmful” is defined as “conduct which causes pain or illness.” “Offensive” is defined as that which “offends a reasonable sense of personal dignity.” The court found that the intentional contact element was satisfied because a speck of rosin got into the plaintiff’s eye. However, the court said that the contact was neither harmful nor offensive. The contact was not harmful because the plaintiff suffered no injury to his eye other than minimal discomfort. The contact was not offensive because a speck of rosin in the eye does not offend a reasonable sense of personal dignity. Therefore, an action for battery could not be sustained, and the $6 million suit was dismissed.

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