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Coblyn v. Kennedy’s Inc

    Citation. 359 Mass. 319, 268 N.E.2d 860, 1971 Mass.

    Brief Fact Summary. After shopping in Kennedy’s Inc.’s (Defendant’s) store, Coblyn (Plaintiff) was leaving when Defendant stopped him. Defendant thought Plaintiff was attempting to steal an ascot. Plaintiff was hospitalized and sued Defendant for false imprisonment.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Any demonstration of physical power, which, to all appearances, can be avoided only by submission, operates as a false imprisonment. Defendant has a privilege to detain Plaintiff if done in a reasonable manner, for a reasonable length of time, and Defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that Plaintiff was attempting to commit larceny of goods held for sale.


    Facts. Plaintiff, a 70-year-old man, was shopping in Defendant store. Plaintiff wore an ascot he had previously purchased in another department store. While trying on a sports coat, Plaintiff took off his ascot and put it in his pocket. Plaintiff purchased the sports coat. As Plaintiff was leaving the store, he took his ascot out of his pocket and put it on again. Goss, an employee of Defendant, “loomed up” in front of Plaintiff and demanded that he stop and explain where he had gotten the ascot. Approximately eight to ten people were watching as Plaintiff agreed to return with Goss to the store. On the way up the stairs, Plaintiff experienced chest and back pains and had to stop several times. When they reached the second floor, the salesman who had sold Plaintiff the sports coat told Goss that the ascot was indeed Plaintiff’s. Plaintiff was so upset by the incident that he required the store nurse’s attention. Plaintiff was subsequently hospitalized and treated for myocardial infra
    ct. The jury awarded Plaintiff $12,500 for false imprisonment. Defendant appealed.

    Issue. There are two issues in this case. The first issue addresses Plaintiff’s claim of false imprisonment. The second issue addresses Defendant’s privilege to imprison.
    * Does restraint of personal liberty, by fear of a personal difficulty, amount to a false imprisonment?
    * If Plaintiff was falsely imprisoned, was the imprisonment privileged?

    Held. Yes, Defendant falsely imprisoned Plaintiff. No, the imprisonment was not privileged. Judgment for Plaintiff affirmed.
    * Any general restraint is sufficient to constitute an imprisonment. Any demonstration of physical power, which, to all appearances, can be avoided only by submission, operates as effectually to constitute an imprisonment. In this case, Goss firmly grasped Plaintiff’s arm and told him that he had better go back to see the manager. There was another employee standing next to Goss. Considering Plaintiff’s age and heart condition, it is hardly expected that Plaintiff could do anything but comply with Goss’s “request” that he go back and see the manager. If a man is restrained of his personal liberty by fear of a personal difficulty, that amounts to a false imprisonment.
    * The jury could have found that the restraint of duress, imposed by the mode of investigation, constituted restraint even if there was no public arrest made or physical restraint attempted. In this case, the honesty and veracity of Plaintiff had been openly challenged. If Plaintiff left before exonerating himself, the onlookers might have interpreted his departure as an admission of guilt.
    * Defendant, a shopkeeper, has a privilege to detain Plaintiff if detained in a reasonable manner, for a reasonable length of time, and if Defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that Plaintiff was attempting to commit larceny of goods held for sale. In this case, it is conceded that Plaintiff was held for a reasonable length of time. However, Defendant’s detention of Plaintiff was not performed in a reasonable manner. There were no reasonable grounds for believing that Plaintiff was committing larceny and, therefore, he should not have been detained at all. Furthermore, Goss’s failure to identify himself as an employee of Defendant, coupled with the physical restraint in a public place imposed upon Plaintiff, an elderly man, who had exhibited no aggressive intention to depart, could be said to constitute an unreasonable method by which to effect detention.
    * The ‘reasonable grounds for believing that Plaintiff was attempting to commit larceny’ is an objective test. In this case, Defendant sought jury instructions that reflected a subjective test. Defendant’s subjective test for reasonableness asked whether Goss had an honest and strong suspicion that Plaintiff was committing or attempting to commit larceny. Defendant’s test would subject Plaintiff’s right to liberty and freedom of movement to the honest suspicion of Goss based on his own inarticulate hunches without regard to any discernible facts. The result would be to afford Defendant even greater authority than that given to a police officer.

    Discussion. In this case, Plaintiff was imprisoned by a demonstration of physical power that could only be avoided by submission. Plaintiff was falsely imprisoned and Defendant was not privileged to detain Plaintiff. Defendant did not have any objective, reasonable grounds for believing that Plaintiff committed larceny. The court added that even if there were reasonable grounds to detain Plaintiff, the detainment was not executed in a reasonable manner. In its analysis, the court pays special attention to Plaintiff’s age and physical condition.

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