Florida Business Litigation: What Constitutes Tortious Interference?
Tortious interference may sound a bit funny, but to business owners and parties to a contract, it is no laughing matter. Tortious interference happens when a third party to a business relationship or contract intentionally disrupts that relationship or contract. This can take many different forms: when an employer who sues a former employee to enforce a non-compete agreement, when neighbors put up fake for sale signs to derail an auction of a neighbor’s condo unit, or when a person intentionally posts false information about a business to scare away customers. These are just a handful of examples.
In general, to demonstrate tortious interference, the plaintiff must show that (1) there was a business relationship or even just potential for a relationship (advantageous or contractual) with another party; (2) the defendant knew about the relationship; (3) the defendant intentionally and unjustly interfered with or otherwise disrupted the business relationship; and, (4) damages resulted from this disruption. To be successful, the plaintiff must show that the damages were a direct result of the defendant’s actions.
For there to be interference, there must be a relationship. Florida recognizes two forms of relationships that can be subject to tortious interference: contractual business relationships and advantageous business relationships. Contractual business relationships are those established by a contract between the parties, including non-disclosure agreements, non-compete agreements, sales agreements, and the like. Advantageous business relationships are harder to define but can include scenarios like a sales relationship with a customer or a vendor.
If there is a relationship, the alleged tortfeasor—the person who allegedly interfered—must have known of the relationship’s existence. In contractual cases, this may be easier to show since contracts are more formal, and in some cases, have to be available for public review or scrutiny. This element is harder to show in advantageous business relationship cases since it is sometimes difficult for third parties to know if there is a relationship or the potential for a relationship.
With respect to the level of interference, garden-variety interference is not enough to reach the level of tortious interference. The interference must be unjust and intentional for this level to be unlocked. Additionally, the interference must take the form of causing the other party to the relationship to either break their promise under the contract or withdraw from the relationship altogether. When someone knowingly posts false information on Facebook that a local restaurant has been cited for health code violations and this causes customers to stay away, there has been tortious interference. In this case, the other party to the relationship, the customers, have severed the relationship by deciding to eat elsewhere because of this information.
Should the plaintiff be able to prove tortious interference, the defendant tortfeasor may have to cough up some significant compensation for lost profits caused as a direct result of his or her actions. If you think someone has tortiously interfered with your business relationships, your first call should be to The Campbell Law Group to learn about your rights and possible remedies. Give us a call today to set up a consultation.