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Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Cockrell - 61 S.W.3d 774 (Tex. App. 2001)

Rule:

In a false-imprisonment case, if the alleged detention was performed with the authority of law, then no false imprisonment occurred. The plaintiff must prove the absence of authority in order to establish the third element of a false-imprisonment cause of action

Facts:

Plaintiff Karl W. Cockrell and his parents went to the layaway department at a store operated by defendant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. ("Wal-Mart"). Cockrell stayed for about five minutes and decided to leave. As he was going out the front door Raymond Navarro, a loss-prevention officer, stopped him and requested that Cockrell follow him to the manager's office. Once in the office Navarro ordered Cockrell to remove his clothes. Nothing was found. He was then told to remove a large bandage on his abdomen, which covered a surgical wound from a recent operation. Again, nothing was found. Afterwards Navarro apologized and let Cockrell go. Cockrell then filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart in Texas state court alleging causes of action for assault and false imprisonment. After a trial, the jury rendered a verdict for Cockrell and awarded him $ 300,000 for past mental anguish. Wal-Mart appealed.

Issue:

Was the evidence legally and factually sufficient to support the jury's findings Wal-Mart, through Navarro, assaulted and falsely imprisoned Cockrell?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court found that Cockrell was willfully detained without his consent and that Navarro, the loss-prevention officer, did not reasonably believe a theft had occurred; therefore, he lacked authority to detain Cockrell . Further, Navarro's contemporaneous search was unreasonable in scope, because he had no probable cause to believe that Cockrell had hidden any merchandise under the bandage. The court also found that Navarro knew or should have reasonably believed that Cockrell would regard Navarro's action of grabbing him from behind and twisting him around as he was leaving the store as offensive or provocative. The court further ruled that testimony by Cockrell and his parents was sufficient to support the award of mental anguish damages.

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