Learn about some surprisingly common scenarios where false imprisonment occurs
This article provides a comprehensive overview of false imprisonment, highlighting its legal elements, potential damages for victims, and real-life examples. It offers valuable insights into recognizing and responding to situations of unlawful confinement.
Imagine you’re walking down the street when, unexpectedly, a security guard pulls you into a store. Without evidence, you’re accused of theft and detained in a back room despite your protests.
This situation, though resembling a movie plot, is a real-life example of false imprisonment.
In this article, we take a close look at false imprisonment, detailing its legal elements, the potential damages available to victims, and real-life examples that help illustrate the prevalence of this intentional tort.
What constitutes false imprisonment?
A person commits false imprisonment when they intentionally confine another person in a restricted space without legal authority. This definition may seem broad, so let’s explore the specific elements necessary to prove false imprisonment:
Confinement to a restricted space: more than just physical restraint
While physical barriers (like a locked door) and restraints (such as holding someone on the ground) are obvious signs of false imprisonment, this legal cause of action extends further. Psychological barriers, including threats or manipulations that make a person believe they can't leave a certain area, also qualify as false imprisonment.
A person is only falsely imprisoned if there are no reasonable means of escape. For instance, if someone is locked in a room with an open window through which they could climb out without injury, they are not considered falsely imprisoned.
Intentionality: the requirement of purpose
To establish false imprisonment, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant intended to restrict the plaintiff’s movements. This element distinguishes false imprisonment from negligent actions that might inadvertently restrict someone’s movement.
Consent: the role of the victim
If an individual consents to confinement, it’s typically not considered false imprisonment. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the individual may still have a viable claim if the consent was somehow coerced or given under duress, or if the individual did not have the mental capacity to provide consent.
Awareness: understanding one’s confinement
Awareness of confinement plays a pivotal role in false imprisonment cases. Typically, the victim is aware they’re being confined against their will. However, consider scenarios where a person is unconscious or under the influence. In such cases, if the individual is unaware of their confinement, they cannot establish a false imprisonment claim.
No legal justification
The final critical element in establishing a case of false imprisonment is the lack of legal justification for the confinement. This means that the detaining party had no legal right or authority to restrict the individual's freedom of movement. For example, law enforcement officials have certain powers to detain individuals under specific circumstances. However, if such detention exceeds their legal authority, or if a private citizen detains another without legal grounds, it may constitute false imprisonment.
Legal ramifications and damages
False imprisonment can constitute both a tort and a crime. As a tort, it’s pursued by the injured party in civil court to seek monetary compensation. As a crime, it’s prosecuted by the state, aiming to punish the perpetrator.
In a tort case for false imprisonment, the plaintiff typically pursues the following types of damages:
- Economic damages: These damages are designed to compensate for quantifiable losses suffered as a result of the false imprisonment. They can include direct financial losses such as medical expenses and lost income, as well as costs associated with psychological counseling or therapy.
- Non-economic damages: The psychological and emotional impact of false imprisonment can be profound. Non-economic damages seek to provide monetary relief for these intangible aspects, like pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of consortium.
- Punitive damages: Punitive damages are only available in situations where the defendant’s actions were particularly egregious. These damages are intended to punish the defendant and deter similar conduct in the future.
To maximize your chances of recovering the compensation you deserve for your false imprisonment claim, you should keep track of all the damages resulting from your false imprisonment.
False arrest, a tort claim akin to false imprisonment, can also be classified as both a crime and a tort. The criteria for proving false arrest are similar to those for false imprisonment. The primary distinction lies in the nature of the initial detention: false arrest involves an arrest under the pretense of legal authority, while false imprisonment simply starts with confinement in an enclosed space.
Common examples of false imprisonment
Understanding the common contexts in which false imprisonment can occur is essential for identifying potential legal violations.
- Retail settings: Shopkeepers have certain rights when it comes to detaining individuals they suspect of theft. Specifically, under the shopkeeper’s privilege, a shopkeeper who suspects someone of theft can detain the individual in a reasonable manner for a reasonable amount of time to investigate. Exceeding these legal boundaries can lead to a false imprisonment claim.
- Domestic and personal relationships: In domestic settings, individuals may be restrained by family members or partners. This can take many forms, from physical barriers to psychological manipulation or threats.
- Law enforcement: While law enforcement officers have the authority to detain individuals under certain circumstances, they must operate within the bounds of the law. Unlawful detention, whether through lack of probable cause or excessive duration, can constitute false imprisonment.
- Employment: Employers may inadvertently or deliberately create conditions where employees feel they cannot leave their workplace. This can range from direct orders to subtle psychological pressure. Such scenarios need careful legal evaluation to determine if they constitute false imprisonment.
A Florida jury ordered Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to pay $261 million in damages for a case involving false imprisonment, among other charges.
The case centered around Maya Kowalski, who was treated at the hospital for complex regional pain syndrome in 2016. Her parents were accused of abuse and barred from seeing her during treatment, leading to emotional distress for Maya and her mother, who later died by suicide.
The hospital, claiming it followed protocols for suspected child abuse, kept Maya at the hospital for about three months, despite the family’s attempts to get her out. While in the hospital, Maya was isolated and kept under video surveillance.