Debra McCann and her two children (age 12 and 16) were leaving Wal-Mart after purchasing several items. As the McCanns left the store, two Wal-Mart employees blocked their path to the exit. The employees yelled to Debra McCann that her kids were not allowed in the store because they had been caught previously shoplifting. However, the employees were incorrect; the child of a different family had been busted stealing in the store around two weeks earlier, and the Wal-Mart staff-members mixed up the two families.
Regardless of Debra McCann’s declarations of mistaken identity, the Wal-Mart staff declared that that the police department would be called, and that the McCanns must “go with [them].” Debra McCann did not resist the two Wal-Mart employees’ orders because she wrongfully thought that she was required to go with the Wal-Mart employees and that the police were on their way. Next, the two Wal-Mart employees escorted the McCanns to a secluded area near the back of the store. One employee watched the family while the other employee supposedly went to call the police.
During the detention, one of the staff-members got in the face of one of the children and accused him of previously stealing. The terrified child cried and repudiated the allegation. After some time, the young boy expressed that he needed to relieve himself in the restroom, but the Wal-Mart employees did not allow him to go. At no time during this first hour or so did the Wal-Mart personnel tell the McCanns they were able to exit the premises.
Even though the Wal-Mart Employees said they were calling the police, they really called a store security officer who would be able to recognize the previous thief. Finally, the security officer arrived at the store and told the Wal-Mart staff that the McCanns were not the family whose son had been busted stealing. The Wal-Mart employees then recognized their error to the McCanns, and the McCanns exited the store.
Subsequently, the McCanns brought suit against Wal-Mart for false imprisonment. The jury awarded the McCanns $20,000 in compensatory damages on their claim that they were falsely imprisoned in the Wal-Mart store by Wal-Mart employees.
What are the elements for a case of false imprisonment?
Perpetrators of false imprisonment are oftentimes individuals other than retail stores. Any person or entity can be liable for false imprisonment if they meet the appropriate elements. In order to recover under a theory of false imprisonment, the plaintiff must establish (1) the defendant restrained him; (2) the restraint was intentional; and (3) the restraint was unlawful. Argoe v. Three Rivers Behavioral Health, L.L.C., 392 S.C. 462, 710 S.E.2d 67 (2011).
False imprisonment includes both a behavior and a mental element. The mental element is the equivalent as that for battery, so that false imprisonment can be committed recklessly. An offender who meant to commit false imprisonment, but really carried out the behavior needed for assault or battery in its place, will be responsible for one of the latter offenses. William Lindsley, J.D., § 1. False Imprisonment, 35 Corpus Juris Secundum.
The behavior element consists of detaining an individual or group of individuals without having legal authority in circumstances where either (1) that individual is conscious of their detention, or (2) such detention causes harm to the victim. Id.
The consciousness of the loss of liberty is considered by the law to be harm in itself, so it is compensable even without actual, bodily or emotional harm. However, if the victim is not cognizant of the imprisonment, then they can only receive compensation if they can show that they obtained actual harm. One of the central questions that has a tendency to to arise in cases regarding false imprisonment is the extent to which it is necessary to prove confinement and whether mere words can be said to detain the victim. Id.
“Underlying the legal recourse available for false imprisonment is that no right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his or her own person, free from all restraint or interference of others, unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law. No person, by the show of violence, has the right to put another in fear and thereby force another to leave a place where they have a right to be, and no person may forcefully prevent another person from leaving a place the person has a right to leave.” Id.
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Families should not have to worry that they may be held for hours by a store or anyone else without legal authority. Anything resembling false imprisonment is terrifying for the people being detained. If you or someone you know has been a victim of false imprisonment, it is vital to contact a knowledgeable false imprisonment lawyer that can help you. The Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA—operating in the Tampa Metropolitan Area—strives to ease the anxiety that forms when someone has been harmed by another. Give us a call today for a free consultation and case assessment: 727-451-6900.
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