When Harmless Pranks Go Wrong

We’ve all played a small prank on someone else, or had a prank played on us. The best prank was when we taped down the sprayer next to the faucet so that when my husband turned on the water, he was instantly soaked. The worst that happened was that he needed a change of clothes, and we still laugh about it to this day. Pranks are usually harmless and fun and playing tricks on each other has even turned into a national holiday—April Fool’s Day. However, at some point, a prank can go too far and even an innocent prank can cause circumstances that end in civil or criminal charges. 

TV, Social Media, and YouTube Pranksters

Pranks have been around forever. I must admit, as kids, my siblings and I called up our neighbors and asked if their air conditioner was “running” in summer, and then responded with “better go catch it!” That was back in the days when we still used the big yellow pages phone book. The truth is, while pranks are not new, the severity and extremism of modern-day pranks seem to be more and more terrifying, ethically questionable, and dangerous. 

The first prank ever televised was on April 1, 1957, when the British Broadcasting Corporation presented a fake documentary about a small family in Switzerland and their traditional spaghetti harvest. The documentary filmed a family picking spaghetti strands from bushes. Literally, thousands of people called in requesting to know how they could also get their very own spaghetti bush. 

We might blame the once popular show Punk’d, which lasted 13 years on television, along with the rise of social media and YouTube. YouTuber Jake Paul posted videos of himself randomly honking his horn loudly at passers-by to get their reaction. Unfortunately, it caused permanent hearing loss to one of the passer-byers. The social media star was held legally liable for all injuries and damages that resulted. 

Other social media pranks begin small and then become viral. Pranksters dressing as knife-wielding clowns, zombies, or ghosts on the side of the roadways can cause car accidents, injuries, and traumatic emotional injuries. Telling others on social media how you caused an accident that led to physical or emotional distress due to a prank can now easily lead to a lawsuit. 

In one of the most disturbing pranks on social media and YouTube yet, one set of parents played cruel jokes on their children over 300 times, causing them to cry and be in clear emotional distress, all for their YouTube channel. A Maryland judge found them guilty of child neglect. 

Grounds for Prank-Related Lawsuits 

Taking a prank too far can result in a serious injury or even death. There are several different ways a prank can lead to a lawsuit. 

Gross Negligence 

If a person’s prank on another included actions that were devoid of concern for the safety of others, the victim may be able to sue for damages based on gross negligence. If a judge finds that an individual acted with extreme indifference and reckless disregard for the safety of others when playing a prank, they may be found guilty of gross negligence. Along with medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering, cases of gross negligence may also result in punitive damages being awarded to the victim to punish the prankster and attempt to deter others from behaving in the same or similar way. Oftentimes, pranks happen in or around cars, and when those situations occur, they can easily lead to someone being hit by a car, causing injury or death. 

Fraud and Breach of Contract 

Some pranks do not cause physical injury but can still result in a lawsuit based on fraud or breach of contract. For example, in 2002, a waitress allegedly won a “Toyota” in a company sales contest. Instead of receiving a car, she was given a “toy Yoda” doll by the company, who thought the prank was funny and clever. She sued for breach of contract, as well as fraudulent misrepresentation, and won. She was allowed to pick out any Toyota vehicle that she wanted as part of the judgment.


If a victim feels terrified, threatened, or at risk for bodily injury as a result of a prank, they may be able to sue for harassment. Emotional injuries can be compensated in a lawsuit in addition to physical injuries. For example, if a person received a phone call every day with threats, heavy breathing, or disturbing messages, the victim could file a lawsuit based on emotional or mental trauma. In most cases, to prove emotional distress, a victim would have to show that the prankster’s actions were outrageous and extreme, that the contact caused the victim to experience some sort of distress, and that the resulting emotional distress was severe. 

It’s All Fun and Games…Until Someone Gets Hurt

Any practical joke or prank can end in tragedy. One man’s family decided to trap their cousin in a Porta-Potty at the campsite by backing their truck against the door. They tipped the portable toilet unit over and left him a quadriplegic, destroying his ability to have a normal life forever. He successfully sued them for over $5 million dollars. 

Think twice before you pull a practical joke or prank. Make sure that no permanent physical or emotional damage could occur to your victim. If you were injured due to a prank, make sure to seek medical attention immediately, and consider visiting with a personal injury attorney to receive compensation for your injuries and losses. And when in doubt, unless your prank is an innocent one, it is best to skip the possibility of a viral YouTube prank video and avoid litigation altogether.