Now that some of the smoke is cleared and we have a better idea of what actually happened with Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, the obvious question arises: Does Te’o have any legal recourse against the perpetrators of this hoax?
To begin with, we still have not heard all sides of this story, but it appears that Te’o, although naïve and overly trusting, was the victim here (expect for a few lies he told to make himself look better along the way). To date, Te’o has not shown any interest in pursuing legal action. He likely will not consider doing so until after the April 25-27 NFL Draft. There is no information available to determine whether Ronaiah Tuiasosopo or the others involved in the hoax have the means to make good on a potential judgment. In any event, here is a brief preview of what we may see if Te’o decides to bring a civil suit against the Catfishers:
Causes of Action: Te’o’s strongest cause of action is Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED). Although it varies slightly in different jurisdictions,the fact remains that in order to prove IIED, the plaintiff must show (1) the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly, (2) the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous, (3) the conduct was the cause of (4) severe emotional stress. Based on the current version of the facts, Te’o can likely show that the hoaxers acted intentionally and that their conduct was extreme. The severe emotional distress need not be for an actual injury suffered. In other words, he can recover for pain and suffering although absent bills from a therapist, this can be difficult to prove and quantify.
Damages: In order to prevail on any claim, Te’o must prove that he was damaged in some way. While he may be able to prove pain and suffering, the more difficult (and lucrative) loss of reputation claim has a number of obstacles. This claim – which I find to be the most interesting part of this analysis – is that the hoax actually caused him a loss in reputation causing damage (a drop in draft stock).
It remains to be seen whether Te’o will fall in the draft. But to show how it might look, lets just say he falls from the sixth pick in the first round of the NFL Draft to the sixth pick in the second round. The sixth pick of the first round in the 2012 NFL Draft, CB Morris Claiborne of the Dallas Cowboys, signed a four-year deal worth $16.26 million. The sixth pick of the second round, DE Andre Branch of the Jacksonville Jaguars, signed a four-year deal worth $5.1 million. Te’o would argue that based on the damage to his reputation from the hoax, he dropped an entire round that cost him $11.16 million in salary. This calculation becomes more complicated when you take into account that NFL contracts are only partially guaranteed.
In order to prove this, Te’o must show based on expert testimony that but for the damage caused by the hoax, he deserved to be drafted much higher. The best expert would be an ex-NFL GM such as Scott Pioli.
Defenses: The Catfishers would likely argue the equitable defense of unclean hands – saying that although they we partially in the wrong, Te’o also furthered the hoax by lying to the press and family, which led to further tarnishing of his reputation.
Prediction: Although this is a very interesting exercise to go through, this case will likely never see the courthouse for a number of reasons: (1) Te’o, about to become a weathly man anyway, probably wants to close this chapter of his life; (2) Even if a large judgment is obtained, the hoaxers may not have the financial means to pay; and (3), as noted above, this is by no means a slam dunk case for Te’o.
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