Personal Injury Law
What was the famous plate-snatching case?
The 1960s case of Emmett E. Fisher shows that the tort of battery can include offensive contacts that are not necessarily physically harmful. Fisher, an African-American man, worked as a mathematician at an agency of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). An electronics company had invited Fisher to attend a meeting held at the Carrousel Motor Hotel. The hotel contained a restaurant called the Brass Ring, which served the luncheon for the meeting Fisher attended.
Fisher entered the Brass Ring and grabbed a plate for lunch. The manager of the Brass Ring snatched the plate from Fisher and shouted that negroes could not be served in the club. Fisher sued the hotel for battery, seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the humiliation he suffered as a result of the manager’s conduct. A jury awarded Fisher $400 in compensatory damages and $500 in punitive damages. However, a Texas appeals court reversed, finding that there was no battery because there was no direct physical contact.
On appeal, the Texas Supreme Court reversed in Fisher v. Carrousel Motor Hotel, 424 S.W.2d 627 (Tex. 1967). The Texas high court reasoned that the tort of battery consisted of offensive contacts, as well as physically harmful contacts. The court explained:
Under the facts of this case, we have no difficulty in holding that the intentional grabbing of plaintiff’s plate constituted a battery. The intentional snatching of an object from one’s hand is as clearly an offensive invasion of his person as would be an actual contact with the body….
Personal indignity is the essence of an action for battery; and consequently, the defendant is liable not only for the contacts which do actual physical harm, but also for those which are offensive and insulting. We hold, therefore, that plaintiff was entitled to actual damages for mental suffering due to the willful battery, even in the absence of any physical injury.
The Texas high court reinstated the jury’s damage award of $900 and, more importantly, established a leading tort-law precedent.