McCann v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. – 210 F.3d 51 (1st Cir. 2000)

Case Name: McCann v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
Plaintiff/Appellee: Debra McCann and her two children
Defendant/Appellant: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
Citation: 210 F.3d 51 (1st Cir. 2000)

Issue: Under Maine law, is the defendant liable for false imprisonment when it told the plaintiffs they must remain in the store until the police arrived.

Key Facts: As the plaintiffs were leaving Wal-Mart following a purchase, they were stopped by Wal-Mart employees who stated that the plaintiff’s child had previously stolen from the store and was not allowed in the store.  The plaintiff protested that they were mistaken but the employees insisted and told her that the police were being called and she “had to go with her.” The plaintiffs were told to remain by the store’s exit while they were supposedly waiting on the police. Only a security guard was summoned and when she arrived she testified that the child was not the shoplifter. The entire process lasted close to one hour.

Procedural History: The jury awarded the plaintiff $20,000 in compensatory damages for false imprisonment. The defendant appealed.

Holding: The defendant’s employees did false imprison the plaintiff because they intentionally confined the plaintiff within boundaries.

Rule of Law: False imprisonment occurs when a person confines another intentionally without lawful privilege and against his consent within a limited area for any appreciable time, however short.

Reasoning: Wal-Mart asserted that under Maine law, the jury had to find “actual physical restraint,” which it took from a case in 1915 because Maine’s highest court did not have a complete definition of false imprisonment. Although the defendant did not touch the plaintiff, the directions to the defendant, the reference to the police, and the continued presence of Wal-Mart employees were enough to induce reasonable people to believe either that they would be restrained physically if they sought to leave, or that the store was claiming lawful authority to confine them until the police arrived, or both.

Judgment: The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision. The jury did not have to find actual physical restraint.