Florida's Laws on Tortious Interference: A Primer for Business Owners
Updated: Jul 17
The concept of tortious interference (tortious interference with contractual relationships, tortious interference with business relationships, tortious interference with economically advantageous relationships, or business defamation) may not be familiar to everyone, but it is a significant concern for businesses and individuals involved in contractual relationships. This concept arises from the tort law concept of defamation, and applies similar concepts to legal entities. As the different names suggest: one claim requires the existence of a contract, the other a business relationship, the next an economically advantageous relationship, and the last mere defamatory statements made about the business.
This article will explore Florida's laws on tortious interference with causes of action, providing a clear understanding of what it entails, how it is demonstrated in a court of law, possible defenses, and pertinent case examples. However, these various, distinct, but related concepts are discussed together for the purposes of giving the reader an overview of what is needed to avoid being sued or analyzing whether there might be a viable cause of action based on these concepts.
What is Tortious Interference?
In a business context, tortious interference occurs when a third party intentionally disrupts a business relationship or contract. This could involve actions such as a former employer suing an employee to enforce a non-compete agreement, or an individual intentionally posting false information about a business to deter customers.
As briefly discussed above, tortious interference with contractual relationships, tortious interference with business relationships, tortious interference with economically advantageous relationships, and business defamation are all distinct legal concepts, each with its own specific elements and implications. Here's a brief overview of each:
1. Tortious Interference with Contractual Relationships: This occurs when an external party knowingly and intentionally interferes with an existing contract between two parties, causing one of them to breach the contract and resulting in damage to the other party. This claim requires a valid and enforceable contract to exist.
2. Tortious Interference with Business Relationships: This concept is broader than tortious interference with contractual relationships. It involves an external party intentionally and unjustly interfering with the business relationships or prospects of another party, causing harm. This type of interference could involve relationships with customers, clients, or suppliers and can apply to prospective business relationships as well as existing ones. There is no requirement for a contract to exist.
3. Tortious Interference with Economically Advantageous Relationships: This is a specific type of tortious interference with business relationships. It refers to the act of purposefully damaging someone's relationship with a third party when that relationship has the potential to economically benefit the victim. This concept doesn't necessarily require a contract to be in place but focuses more on the potential economic gains that the victim stood to achieve from the relationship.
4. Business Defamation: This is a distinct concept that involves making false statements about a business that harm its reputation and cause it financial loss. The false statement can be made orally (slander) or in writing (libel), and it must be communicated to a third party. Unlike the other three concepts, business defamation specifically involves the communication of false information.
While there's overlap among these concepts (they all involve wrongful interference in another's business affairs), each has unique elements that must be proven in court. As a result, the appropriate claim to bring will depend on the specific circumstances of a case.
Demonstrating Tortious Interference in Florida
To demonstrate tortious interference under Florida law, the plaintiff must show that:
1. A business/contractual/economically advantageous relationship or the potential for a relationship existed with another party.
2. The defendant was aware of the relationship.
3. The defendant intentionally and unjustly interfered with or disrupted the business relationship.
4. The plaintiff suffered damages as a direct result of the defendant's actions.
Florida law recognizes two forms of relationships that can be subject to tortious interference: contractual business relationships and advantageous business relationships. Contractual business relationships are established by a contract between parties, including non-disclosure agreements, non-compete agreements, and sales agreements. Advantageous business relationships, although harder to define, can include scenarios like a sales relationship with a customer or a vendor.
The level of interference must be significant; garden-variety interference does not suffice. The interference must be unjust and intentional, causing the other party to the relationship to either break their promise under the contract or withdraw from the relationship altogether.
Defenses Against Claims of Tortious Interference
Defending against a tortious interference claim in Florida involves certain key elements. These can include showing that no breach of contract occurred, that the defendant had legal justification for their actions, or that the defendant was unaware of the contract or business relationship that was allegedly damaged. Other defenses might involve proving that the defendant never intended for the damaging act to interfere with the contract or business relationship in question, or that the statute of limitations, which is four years in Florida, had expired.
Hales v. Ashland Oil, Inc., 342 So. 2d 984 (Fla. 3d DCA 1977) (disapproved of on other grounds by, Tamiami Trail Tours, Inc. v. Cotton, 463 So. 2d 1126 (Fla. 1985)): As already discussed, this case confirms that Florida recognizes the tort of malicious interference with contractual rights or advantageous business relationships. The mention of §§ 15, 16 likely refers to sections of a relevant statute or legal treatise discussing privileged or justified interferences, which can serve as defenses to a claim of tortious interference.
Franklin v. Brown, 159 So. 2d 893 (Fla. 1st DCA 1964): While the specifics of this case aren't given, the citation suggests it discusses the elements required to establish interference with a business relationship.
Duty Free Americas, Inc. v. Estee Lauder Companies, Inc., 797 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2015); Sirpal v. University of Miami, 684 F. Supp. 2d 1349, 255 Ed. Law Rep. 712 (S.D. Fla. 2010): The specifics of these cases aren't provided in your note, but they seem to be relevant to tortious interference jurisprudence.
MD Associates v. Friedman, 556 So. 2d 1158 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990): This case illustrates a specific application of the tort of interference with a business relationship. Here, the court found that a signed sale contract following an alleged oral agreement did not support a claim of intentional interference with a business relationship. This might mean that the existence of a formal, written contract could potentially negate a claim of interference based on an earlier oral agreement.
Paul’s Drugs, Inc. v. Southern Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 175 So. 2d 203 (Fla. 3d DCA 1965): This case reaffirms that the interference with any contract is a tort under Florida law. This broad view of tortious interference underscores the state's commitment to upholding the sanctity of contracts and the importance of stable business relationships.
Miami Laundry Co. v. Sanitary Linen Service Co., 131 So. 2d 519 (Fla. 3d DCA 1961): This case demonstrates that injunctive relief may be available in cases of tortious interference. Injunctive relief is a type of court order that requires a party to do or refrain from doing certain acts. In the context of tortious interference, such a remedy could be used to prevent further interference with a contract or business relationship.
Tortious interference with contractual relationships is a complex area of law, with significant implications for businesses and individuals in Florida. As these cases demonstrate, success in bringing or defending against such claims requires a detailed understanding of the law and careful presentation of the facts. Therefore, whether you believe that you may have a claim for tortious interference, or if you are defending against such a claim, it is advisable to consult with an attorney who is experienced in this area of law. The legal experts at VAdam Law can provide personalized advice based on specific circumstances, ensure compliance with the requirements, and help guide you on any concerns you may have regarding the doctrine of tortious interference in the State of Florida.
If you would like to learn more about VAdam Law and schedule a free consultation, visit our online scheduling portal or call 24 hours a day at (954) 451-0792.