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Bonkowski v. Arlan’s Department Store


    Citation. Bonkowski v. Arlan’s Dep’t Store, 383 Mich. 90, 174 N.W.2d 765, 1970 Mich. LEXIS 134 (Mich. Mar. 9, 1970)

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff had left Defendant department store after shopping. Defendant Reinhardt, a security guard working for the store approached her in the parking lot and asked to see the contents of her purse. He determined that, despite reports of another witness, Plaintiff had not stolen anything and returned to the store.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. There exists a privilege for merchants or shopkeepers to detain those whom they reasonably believe to have unlawfully taken chattels for a reasonable investigation and thereby avoid liability for false imprisonment.


    Facts. Plaintiff had been shopping at the Defendant department store. Defendant approached Plaintiff in the parking lot and explained that someone had told him that she had placed jewelry in her purse and not paid for it. He requested that she show him the contents of her purse, which she did. Defendant was satisfied by the presence of receipts that she had not stolen anything. Plaintiff later sued Defendant and the store for false imprisonment and slander. The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff in the amount of $43,750. The trial court denied Defendants’ post-trial motions.

    Issue. Was the trial court correct in denying the Defendants’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the basis of privilege?

    Held. No. Reversed and remanded for new trial. If Defendant reasonably believed that Plaintiff had unlawfully taken items form the store, he was privileged to detain the Plaintiff for a reasonable investigation.

    Discussion. This case introduces the shopkeeper or merchant’s privilege to detain a suspected shoplifter for investigation. There are two important issues with respect to the privilege: 1) whether there was a reasonable belief that an item had been unlawfully taken; and 2) whether the investigation undertaken in response to this belief was reasonable. Satisfaction of both elements will provide a defense to a claim of false imprisonment.

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