Tortious Interference. It's a term that is - and has- been thrown around in rather cavalier fashion, as a way of saying the other side impinged on your turf. But it is first and foremost a term that has legal significance, it is somewhat of a hybrid between a number of different legal doctrines, and therefore shares - or borrows - from them, that has led to a significant amount of confusion in defining exactly what tortious interference is - and what it isn't.

Some Other Doctrines That Are Closely Tied to Tortious Interference Claims

In order to fully appreciate the viability - or not - of a potential tortious interference claim, these causes of action need to be evaluated against the backdrop of several related claims. By way of example, and as discussed more fully below, the primary way plaintiffs seek to recover their damages for tortious interference is related to breach of contract, such as where the defendant induced a third party to break its existing agreement with the plaintiff, whether as a customer or employee of the plaintiff.

A second related doctrine that is intrinsically tied to tortious interference is that of unfair competition - where the plaintiff maintains that the defendant unfairly took, or used, its hard-won commercial advantage without paying for it, such as where someone surreptitiously copied and took the plaintiff's confidential customer list that cost plaintiff millions of dollars to develop.

As you may have guessed, this claim is also often accompanied by claims for breach of fiduciary duty, where the defendants allegedly worked in tandem with the plaintiff's (disloyal) employees to divert the plaintiff's customers, in violation of their responsibilities to the plaintiff.

And let this serve to disabuse you of any mistaken pre-conceived notions you may have about proving one of these claims in New York: it is by no means a simple thing

In fact, there is more than one type of tortious interference, and each type carries its own unique aspects, and most importantly, its own particular elements of proof needed to sustain a successful claim under New York law.

The Two Different Types of Tortious InterferenceElements For a Tortious Interference Claim in New York

As noted in "How to Prove Tortious Interference Under New York Law," there are actually two completely distinct causes of action that relate to tortious interference:

The first one entails where the defendant induced someone to break their existing contract with you; on the other hand, the second type of tortious interference claim doesn't require the breaking of an actual contract - it is predicated on the assumption that but for the defendant's actions, a third party likely would have entered into a binding contract with the plaintiff.

The Challenges of Proving Tortious Interference

Since these claims inherently require analysis - and at least some speculation - as to how at least 3 different parties would have acted under slightly different circumstances (i.e., without the tortious interference), it becomes apparent that proving a tortious interference claim is far from easy. On the contrary, it can prove extremely challenging, primarily because of one doctrine:


Why the Justification Defense to a Tortious Interference Claim is So Powerful 

As noted in "The Best Defense to a Tortious Interference Claim in New York," New York State's highest court has stated unequivocally that where the defendants acted for their own legitimate business interests, that will serve as a valid defense to a tortious interference claim. Therefore, in a case where the defendant was competing with the plaintiff for the same client, while the plaintiff may have other theories of liability to recover against the defendant, the tortious interference legal avenue will often be foreclosed.

Jonathan Cooper
Connect with me
Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer