The first of April in many countries including Ghana is a day where pranks are played on unsuspecting individuals. The origin of April fool’s day is blurry and there are competing claims as to the origin. Some people assert that the custom originated in France. This was when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. This moved the New Year celebration from the 1st of April to the 1st of January. People who still celebrated the New Year in April after the change were mocked and referred to as poisson d’avril (April fish). April fool’s day in Ghana is characterized by sending people on the fool’s errand or sharing exaggerated fake news amongst others. April fool’s day jokes and games are fun until someone gets hurt.
A harmless prank may form the basis of a lawsuit in the civil court. The courts were faced with the issue of practical jokes in the case of Wilkinson v Downton. The defendant in this case came to the plaintiff’s house and informed her that her husband, while returning with some friends from the races, had met with an accident and had both his legs broken, that he was lying at The Elms public-house at Leytonstone, and had desired the defendant to request the plaintiff to go at once with a cab and some pillows to fetch him home. These statements were false. The defendant was clearly playing a joke on Mrs. Wilkinson. Her hair turned white as a result of the shock, and she ‘suffered serious and permanent physical consequences at one time threatening her reason, and entailing weeks of physical suffering and incapacity. In this case, an action in deceit or trespass was not applicable. To constitute an action in deceit, the fraudulent statement made by the defendant must be relied on by the plaintiff to his detriment. In this case, Mrs. Wilkinson did not rely on the statement, she merely believed in it to her detriment. Also, an action in trespass was also inappropriate because there was no direct physical infliction of harm or the threat of it. The courts were faced with a novel situation and Justice Wright chose to be a bold spirit who was ready to allow the claim to satisfy the ends of justice. The court held that the defendant willfully did an act calculated to cause physical harm to the plaintiff i.e. to infringe her legal right to personal safety, and had in fact caused physical harm to her. The elements of the tort can be deduced from Lord Wright’s judgment as:
- A deliberate misrepresentation made by the defendant
- Calculated to cause harm to the plaintiff
- Actually causes harm to the plaintiff. The rule in Wilkinson v Downton is an action on the case and hence requires the proof of damage.
The principle in Wilkinson v Downton was applied by the court years later in the case of Janvier v Sweeny. A private detective told a woman that he was a police detective and that she was wanted for communicating with a German spy. He did this in order to obtain certain information about her employer. The woman suffered shock and nervous illness as a result of this statement. Duke LJ reasoned that the present case was a stronger authority than Wilkinson v Downton. In Wilkinson v Downton the court imputed an intention to Mr. Downton. However, in this case, the defendant’s had an intention to terrify the plaintiff for the purpose of attaining an unlawful object and hence they were liable.
In addition, in the Canadian case of Bielitski v Obadiak, the defendant circulated a false report that Steve Bielitski had hanged himself from a telegraph pole, and the report in due course reached Bielitski’s mother, who suffered a violent shock and became ill. The defendant may have only intended to play a practical joke and seemingly did not either desire or realize that more serious consequences would follow. In the case, the court applied the rule in Wilkinson v Downton and held that the defendant was liable on the assumption that he must have intended the report to reach the mother.
In the case of Barnes v Commonwealth of Australia, the defendants sent the plaintiff a letter informing her that her husband had been admitted to a mental hospital, and this caused the plaintiff to suffer shock. The court held that shock to the plaintiff was foreseeable as a result of the communication of such a statement and that the defendants therefore, owed a duty to take care to ensure that the information being communicated was correct.
Today is April fool’s day and you may be thinking about pranking a friend or a loved one. You may choose to circulate a friends picture with the inscription ‘’ RIP you were a great friend’’ or scare your colleague with a message that her child just been run over by a truck in front of her school. Pranks can turn into serious lawsuits when the butt of the joke is not laughing. You may wake up on April fool’s day full of excitement and sleep as a defendant in a civil case.
Christine S. Lassey
University of Ghana School of Law