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Teel v. May Dep't Stores Co. - 348 Mo. 696, 155 S.W.2d 74 (1941)

Rule:

It is not necessary for a plaintiff to prove malice or want of probable cause to make a case of false imprisonment. Nevertheless, the owner of property has the right to take action by force or confinement reasonable under the circumstances in defense of his property. In such cases, probable cause may be an important element of the defense of justification. Therefore, an owner of a store or other premises has the right to detain a person therein, for a reasonable time for a reasonable investigation, whom he has reasonable grounds to believe has not paid for what he has received or is attempting to take goods without payment.

Facts:

Plaintiff and a friend made purchases at defendant May Department Store Co. on the friend's boyfriend's account, using the name of the boyfriend's wife. Defendant store detective detained the women and questioned them as to their identities. Plaintiff was forced to return the purchases, and then forced to sign a confession before she was allowed to leave. Plaintiff filed an action seeking $20,000 actual and $20,000 punitive damages for false arrest and imprisonment. The jury returned a verdict for $500 actual and $500 punitive damages, a total of $1000 for which judgment was entered. Plaintiff appealed and raised only the issue of inadequate damages. Defendant also appealed and assigns error in the refusal of a peremptory instruction and in Instruction No. 1 on which the case was submitted. 

Issue:

Did the trial court err when it instructed recovery for false imprisonment prior to the time that the merchandise had been returned from as well as after the goods where returned?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed, finding that plaintiff had stated a cause of action for false imprisonment when she was forced to sign a confession before being allowed to leave defendant's store. Defendant had probable cause to detain plaintiff and investigate what it thought to be a theft, but it did not have the right to delay releasing plaintiff after the goods were returned. The court's jury instructions erroneously allowed the jury to find imprisonment based on the initial detention of plaintiff. The appellate court opined that there could be no jury case of false imprisonment after the goods were returned. Defendant's agents, if they did not believe the explanation made by plaintiff, might have been within their rights if they had called the authorities to take them into custody and preferred charges against them. Instead of doing this, they undertook to do something that not even the public authorities had any right to do, namely: to compel them to sign confessions under threat of not permitting them to leave his office until they did so. It is well settled that unreasonable delay in releasing a person, who is entitled to be released, or such delay in calling, taking him before or turning him over to proper authorities, or in wrongfully denying opportunity to give bond would thereafter amount to false imprisonment. Certainly, neither the privilege to restrain plaintiff for the purpose of obtaining return of the goods or in order to turn her over to the proper authorities charged with a felony under the above cited statutes would give defendant any authority to hold plaintiff to compel her to give a confession in violation of her civil rights under the Constitution of this State.

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