[author: Aaron Kase]
A Texas woman is suing Wal-Mart for false imprisonment and emotional distress, claiming the store detained her for two hours over counterfeit money that wasn’t counterfeit. Store employees tore up two $100 bills, Julia Garcia contends, then tried to return them to her when a police officer finally confirmed that they were genuine.
Garcia was on a Christmas shopping trip for her children in 2010 when a cashier took her $100 bill, decided it was fake and tore it in half before bothering to check it with a counterfeit detection pen, according to the lawsuit. Even then, after the test showed the bill was real and its metal strip could clearly be seen, a manager came over and destroyed a second $100 bill that Garcia offered.
The manager then made Garcia wait for two hours at the front of the store for police to arrive, in full view of other customers, the suit contends. When an officer finally showed up, he quickly confirmed that the bills were real and made the manager replace her money — but not before the Wal-Mart employee tried to return the already-torn bills instead.
Now, the store has a lawsuit on its hands.
“The legal remedies for false imprisonment are the recovery of actual damages such as physical injuries, medical costs, value of lost, misappropriated or damaged property, if any,” says Christopher L. Davis, a consumer litigation and personal injury attorney near Dallas. “A successful plaintiff in a false imprisonment case can also recover damages for humiliation, shame, fright, mental anguish, as well as exemplary damages, if it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with malice.”
The plaintiff is seeking less than $74,900.
Christopher L. Davis
If Garcia’s claims are accurate, the Wal-Mart employees messed up big-time. Of course, stores have the right to protect their merchandise and detain people who they believe are stealing from them, or trying to pass off counterfeit money. However, the actions of store security or management must meet basic standards of reasonableness.
“There is no bright line test for precisely how long an individual may be detained by the store before law enforcement is contacted,” says Davis. “A retailer who reasonably believes that another has stolen or is attempting to steal property has a statutory privilege to detain a person to investigate the ownership of the property. This conditional right, often referred to as the ‘shopkeeper’s privilege,’ is not without limitation.”
In 1998 the Texas Supreme Court gave the okay for a 10- or 15-minute detention of a customer by store employees to investigate a potential theft of peanuts, in a case that also involved a Walmart.
“The ‘shopkeeper’s privilege’ expressly grants an employee the authority of law to detain a customer to investigate the ownership of property in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable period of time if the employee has a reasonable belief that the customer has stolen or is attempting to steal store merchandise,” the court’s opinion reads.
“Whether the retailer’s belief and conduct is reasonable will, of course, be determined on a case by case basis,” says Davis.
Whether the Wal-Mart employees acted in a reasonable manner is up to the jury to decide. However, it may be hard for the store to argue that the clerk or manager made a good-faith effort to determine the legitimacy of Garcia’s bills if they didn’t bother to make standard counterfeit checks.
“The innocent or well intentioned ‘mistake’ is seldom a basis for liability,” explains Davis. “By contrast, the prevalent theme found in virtually all successful false-imprisonment cases is an intentional — and even reckless — pursuit of an individual in the absence of compelling good-faith proof.”
Retail outlets can take precautions to protect themselves from falsely accusing and detaining someone through surveillance cameras, in the case of theft, and in general following a standard set of procedures to not overstep their discretionary rights.
“The best-practices manuals of major retailers undoubtedly speak of maintaining a professional demeanor, respecting the dignity of the individual who stands accused of criminal conduct and [applying] a uniform process to determine appropriate actions under a given set of circumstances,” the attorney says. “In the final analysis, common sense may be the best procedure.”
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