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N.O.C. Inc. v. Schaefer

Decided: May 14, 1984.

N.O.C., INC., T/A NOBLE OIL COMPANY, A NEW JERSEY CORPORATION AND CHRISTOPHER GRUNGO, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
PATRICIA SCHAEFER, DEFENDANT



Haines, A.j.s.c.

Haines

N.O.C., Inc., t/a Noble Oil Company, and Christopher Grungo, its president, have sued Patricia Schaefer for an invasion of privacy. Noble and Schaefer are adjoining property owners. Noble operates a fuel oil and waste oil transfer, treatment and storage facility on its property in Tabernacle Township, New Jersey. It is subject to regulation as a hazardous waste facility. Its property is surrounded by an eight-foot high stockade fence.

Since early 1980, defendant has kept the activities on Noble's property under intensive scrutiny. During the first year of this activity, she climbed a ladder propped against a tree near Noble's property line so that she could observe Noble's activities. In 1982 she constructed a "tree fort" in the backyard for her children's use but also for the purpose of better observing Noble's activities. She has used binoculars, a camera and occasionally a telescope to observe them. She has kept a detailed diary and file on Noble which set forth accounts of

vehicles and the movement of machinery within the facility as well as the nature of the work performed therein. She has recorded conversations involving Noble's employees which she could overhear while making her observations. Plaintiffs claim that these activities constitute a deliberate and harassing intrusion upon their right to privacy.

Patricia Schaefer does not deny the existence or extent of her activities. She insists, however, that they are justified. She believes that Noble has constructed a fence, a platform and underground tanks which violate the local zoning ordinance. She is also concerned about oil spills on the property which might seep through the ground and invade her lands, including her well. She has been annoyed by large trucks parking in the street during early morning hours. She reported her concerns to the township committee at a public meeting in May 1980 and was advised by the mayor, Frank Grungo, that she had no proof to support her claims. She understood him to suggest that she was lying. It was then that she decided to maintain records of plaintiffs' activities. She has reported her concerns to the Department of Environmental Protection, the Burlington County Board of Health and the Division of Water Resources of the Department of Environmental Protection. In August 1982 she obtained a copy of a report from the Burlington County Health Department, addressed to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. It concerned the registration of Noble as a hazardous waste facility and noted the installation of two 15,000-gallon underground tanks in addition to its six existing tanks while setting forth the possibility of ground pollution from oil spills. In December 1982 defendant learned that Noble was fined $40,000 for violation of the Federal Toxic Substance Control Act. She has seen no reason to discontinue her activities since her complaints have produced no satisfactory action.

Noble now moves for a summary judgment establishing the liability of defendant. The essential facts, set forth above, are

not in dispute. This opinion, holding there is no liability, addresses the motion.

A. THE CORPORATE ACTION FOR INVASION OF PRIVACY.

3 Restatement, Torts 2d, ยง 652I (1981) states:

Except for the appropriation of one's name or likeness, an action for invasion of privacy can be maintained only by a living individual where privacy is invaded.

Comment (c) to the Restatement further indicates that:

A corporation, partnership or unincorporated association has no personal right of privacy. It has therefore no cause of action for any of the four forms of invasion (of privacy, including intrusion upon seclusion)

The New Jersey courts have not addressed the question of whether a corporation has a cause of action for invasion of privacy. However, the Restatement position is reasonable and convincing. The tort of invasion of privacy focuses on the humiliation and intimate personal distress suffered by an individual as a result of intrusive behavior. While a corporation may have its reputation or business damaged as a result of intrusive activity, it is not capable of emotional suffering. There is no claim of reputation or business damage in this action; if there were, it would not be recoverable on a theory of invasion of privacy. I conclude that the defendant cannot be liable to the corporation in this action.

B. INDIVIDUAL ACTION FOR INVASION OF PRIVACY.

Christopher Grungo, President of Noble Oil Company, Inc., sues as an individual and consequently does not face the corporate exclusion noted above. It is, therefore, necessary to examine the rules of law which apply to his claim of invasion of privacy.

(1) Right to Privacy in New Jersey

The New Jersey Courts have recognized a cause of action for an invasion of privacy in a number of cases. The earlier decisions based their relief upon the theory that property or contract rights were involved. See, e.g., Vanderbilt v. Mitchell, 72 N.J. Eq. 910 (E. & A.1907); Edison v. Edison Polyform and Manufacturing Co., 73 N.J. Eq. 136 (Ch. 1907); Blex v. Smith, 194 N.J. Eq. 386 (Ch. 1929). The later cases recognized the right of ...


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