The plaintiff, a small elderly man, was falsely accused of shoplifting from the defendant. He was taken back into the store from which he had just purchased a sport coat, and he began to feel ill. He was ultimately hospitalized for a myocardial infarct caused by the emotional distress of the incident.
One must be reasonably justified, using the standard of a reasonable person, in believing that someone was shoplifting in order to detain them without liability.
On March 5, 1965, the plaintiff went to Kennedy’s, the defendant store, in Boston. The plaintiff was 70 years old and about 5’4 in height, wearing a woolen shirt that was open at the neck, a topcoat, and a hat. He also wore an ascot purchased elsewhere around his neck, and he removed this ascot, the hat, and the topcoat. He purchased a sport coat and left it for alterations, putting his hat and coat back on. He then stopped and knotted the ascot around his neck. As he did so, an employee of the defendant stopped him and grabbed him by the arm, under the belief that the plaintiff had stolen the ascot. The plaintiff agreed to go back into the store but was suffering from chest and back pains. The store manager confirmed that he had not stolen the ascot and was concerned by the plaintiff’s sickly appearance, so he took him to the nurse. As a direct result of the encounter in the store, the plaintiff was hospitalized and treated for a myocardial infarct.
Was the plaintiff falsely imprisoned in the store?
Yes. The trial court judgement is affirmed.
The court begins with the proposition that any genuine restraint is sufficient to constitute an imprisonment. It believes that the evidence sufficiently shows false imprisonment to the extent that a jury could make the determination. The firm grasping of the plaintiff’s arm by the defendant’s employee, plus the other employees standing nearby and watching, was imposing enough to be imprisonment, especially due to the plaintiff’s age and small size—he had no option but to comply. Even though the detention was for a reasonable amount of time under statutes meant to prevent theft, the employee did not identify himself as such and used unwarranted aggression against the plaintiff, constituting an unreasonable method by which to effect detention. The court then uses a reasonable person standard to show that the evidence demonstrates that the employee was not reasonably justified in detaining the plaintiff.