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Whittaker v. Sandford

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff and her husband were members of a religious group headed by Defendant and based in Tel Aviv. Plaintiff decided she would like to leave the group and return to the United States, in response to which Defendant offered transportation via his yacht and assured her she would not be detained. Upon arrival, Defendant refused to grant her use of a boat to reach the shore, and she remained on board against her will except for brief, supervised excursions until she finally obtained release through a writ of habeas corpus.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Physical as opposed to moral restraint is required for false imprisonment, but this does not mean actual physical force must be used. Refusing to provide one with the means to overcome a physical barrier can constitute restraint such as can give rise to a claim for false imprisonment.

    Facts. Plaintiff was a member of a religious organization of which her husband was a minister and Defendant was the head. The group was based in Tel Aviv, but Plaintiff decided she would like to leave the group and return to the United States with her children. Defendant offered to grant them passage aboard his yacht and promised that they would not be detained when Plaintiff expressed concern that he would refuse to let her leave the ship. When they arrived, Defendant refuse to let Plaintiff use a boat to reach the shore and said it was up to her husband to decide whether she should be allowed to do so. Plaintiff’s husband, in turn, said that it was up to Defendant to decide. Although Plaintiff was occasionally allowed to leave the yacht briefly, she was always supervised and was only able to reach the United States after she secured a writ of habeas corpus. She sued Defendant for false imprisonment. At trial, the court instructed the jury that while physical restraint was a necessa
    ry element of false imprisonment, actual physical force need not have been used.

    Issue. Did the trial court properly instruct the jury that actual physical force is not required for a case of false imprisonment to succeed?

    Held. Yes. The verdict was upheld. Physical restraint can be found in the refusal to grant one the means to overcome a barrier to free movement, particularly when one has sole control over those means. The boats in question were under the control of Defendant and were necessary to provide Plaintiff with the means to reach the shore.

    Discussion. While false imprisonment is not so broad a concept as to allow recovery when one merely persuades another to restrict his own movements by appealing to his morals or reason, nor is it so narrow that actual physical force must have been used. This case addresses the grey area in which a physical impediment to a Plaintiff’s free movement existed and a Defendant refused to remove it. In this case, the fact that the Defendant caused the impediment to exist and controlled the means to remove it meant that his refusal to do so constituted false imprisonment.


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