Coblyn v. Kennedy's, Inc.

Decision Date15 April 1971
Parties, 47 A.L.R.3d 991 Marius S. COBLYN v. KENNEDY'S, INC. et al.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Thomas R. Morse, Jr., Boston, for defendants.

Sumner Z. Kaplan, Boston (Julian Soshnick, Boston, with him) for plaintiff.


SPIEGEL, Justice.

This is an action of tort for false imprisonment. 1 At the close of the evidence the defendants filed a motion for directed verdicts which was denied. The jury returned verdicts for the plaintiff in the sum of $12,500. The case is here on the defendants' exceptions to the denial of their motion and to the refusal of the trial judge to give certain requested instructions to the jury.

We state the pertinent evidence most favorable to the plaintiff. On March 5, 1965, the plaintiff went to Kennedy's, Inc. (Kennedy's), a store in Boston. He was seventy years of age and about five feet four inches in height. He was wearing a woolen shirt, which was 'open at the neck,' a topcoat and a hat. '(A)round his neck' he wore an ascot which he had 'purchased * * * previously at Filenes.' He proceeded to the second floor of Kennedy's to purchase a sport coat. He removed his hat, topcoat and ascot, putting the ascot in his pocket. After purchasing a sport coat and leaving it for alterations, he put on his hat and coat and walked downstairs. Just prior to exiting through the outside door of the store, he stopped, took the ascot out of his pocket, put it around his neck, and knotted it. The knot was visible 'above the lapels of his shirt.' The only stop that the plaintiff made on the first floor was immediately in front of the exit in order to put on his ascot.

Just as the plaintiff stepped out of the door, the defendant Goss, an employee, 'loomed up' in front of him with his hand up and said: 'Stop. Where did you get that scarf?' The plaintiff responded, '(W)hy?' Goss firmly grasped the plaintiff's arm and said: '(Y)ou better go back and see the manager.' Another employee was standing next to him. Eight or ten other people were standing around and were staring at the plaintiff. The plaintiff then said, 'Yes, I'll go back in the store' and proceeded to do so. As he and Goss went upstairs to the second floor, the plaintiff paused twice because of chest and back pains. After reaching the second floor, the salesman from whom he had purchased the cost recognized him and asked what the trouble was. The plaintiff then asked: '(W)hy 'these two gentlemen stop me? " The salesman confirmed that the plaintiff had purchased a sport coat and that the ascot belonged to him.

The salesman became alarmed by the plaintiff's appearance and the store nurse was called. She brought the plaintiff into the nurse's room and gave him a soda mint tablet. As a direct result of the emotional upset caused by the incident, the plaintiff was hospitalized and treated for a 'myocardial infarct.'

Initially, the defendants contend that as a matter of law the plaintiff was not falsely imprisoned. They argue that no unlawful restraint was imposed by either force or threat upon the plaintiff's freedom of movement. Wax v. McGrath, 255 Mass. 340, 342, 151 N.E. 317. However, '(t)he law is well settled that '(a)ny genuine restraint is sufficient to constitute an imprisonment * * *' and '(a)ny demonstration of physical power which, to all appearances, can be avoided only by submission, operates as effectually to constitute an imprisonment, if submitted to, as if any amount of force had been exercised.' 'If a man is restrained of his personal liberty by fear of a personal difficulty, that amounts to a false imprisonment' within the legal meaning of such term.' Jacques v. Childs Dining Hall Co., 244 Mass. 438, 438--439, 138 N.E. 843.

We think it is clear that there was sufficient evidence of unlawful restraint to submit this question to the jury. Just as the plaintiff had stepped out of the door of the store, the defendant Goss stopped him, firmly grasped his arm and told him that he had 'better go back and see the manager.' There was another employee at his side. The plaintiff was an elderly man and there were other people standing around staring at him. Considering the plaintiff's age and his heart condition, it is hardly to be expected that with one employee in front of him firmly grasping his arm and another at his side the plaintiff could do other than comply with Goss's 'request' that he go back and see the manager. The physical restraint imposed upon the plaintiff when Goss grasped the plaintiff's arm readily distinguishes this case from Sweeney v. F. W. Woolworth Co., 247 Mass. 277, 142 N.E. 50, relied upon by the defendants.

In addition, as this court observed in the Jacques case, supra, at p. 441, 138 N.E. at p. 844, the 'honesty and veracity (of the plaintiff) had been openly * * * challenged. If she had gone out before * * * (exonerating herself), her departure well might have been interpreted by the lookers on as an admission of guilt, or of circumstances from which guilt might be inferred. The situation was in the control of the defendant. The restraint or duress imposed by the mode of investigation * * * the jury could say was for the accomplishment of the defendant's purpose, even if no threats of public exposure or of arrest were made, and no physical restraint of * * * (the plaintiff) was attempted.' For cases in other jurisdictions, where the evidence tended to support the tort of false imprisonment, see Clark v. Kroger Co., 382 F.2d 562, 563 (7th Cir.); Patrick v. Esso Standard Oil Co., D.C.N.J., 156 F.Supp. 336, 340; Daniel v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 229 Mo.App. 150, 155, 73 .s.W.2d 355; Lukas v. J. C. Penney Co., 233 Or. 345, 354, 378 P.2d 717.

The defendants next contend that the detention of the plaintiff was sanctioned by G.L. c. 231, § 94B, inserted by St.1958, c. 337. This statute provides as follows: 'In an action for false arrest or false imprisonment brought by any person by reason of having been detained for questioning on or in the immediate vicinity of the premises of a merchant, if such person was detained in a reasonable manner and for not more than a reasonable length of time by a person authorized to make arrests or by the merchant or his agent or servant authorized for such purpose and if there were reasonable grounds to believe that the person so detained was committing or attempting to commit larceny of goods for sale on such premises, it shall be a defence to such action. If such goods had not been purchased and were concealed on or amongst the belongings of a person so detained it shall be presumed that there were reasonable grounds for such belief.'

The defendants argue in accordance with the conditions imposed in the statute that the plaintiff was detained in a reasonable manner for a reasonable length of time and that Goss had reasonable grounds for believing that the plaintiff was attempting to commit larceny of goods held for sale.

It is conceded that the detention was for a reasonable length of time. See Proulx v. Pinkerton's Natl. Detective Agency, Inc., 343 Mass. 390, 392--393, 178 N.E.2d 575. We need not decide wehther the detention was effected in a reasonable manner for we are of opinion that there were no reasonable grounds for believing that the plaintiff was committing larceny and, therefore, he should not have been detained at all. However, we observe that Goss's failure to identify himself as an employee of Kennedy's and to disclose the reasons for his inquiry and actions, coupled with the physical restraint in a public place imposed upon the plaintiff, an elderly man, who had exhibited no aggressive intention to depart, could be said to constitute an unreasonable method by which to effect detention. See Lukas v. J. C. Penney Co., 233 Or. 345, 352, 360, 378 P.2d 717.

The pivotal question before us as in most cases of this character is whether the evidence shows that there were reasonable grounds for the detention. At common law in an action for false imprisonment, the defence of probable cause, as neasured by the prudent and cautious man standard, was available to a merchant. Standish v. Narragansett S.S. Co., 111 Mass. 512, 517. Jacques v. Childs Dining Hall Co., 244 Mass. 438, 439, 138 N.E. 843. Muniz v. Mehlman, 327 Mass. 353, 358, 2 99 N.E.2d 37. In enacting G.L. c. 231, § 94B, the Legislature inserted the words, 'reasonable grounds.' Historically, the words 'reasonable grounds' and 'probable cause' have been given the same meaning by the courts. In the case of United States v. Walker, 7 Cir., 246 F.2d 519, 526, it was said: "Probable cause' and 'reasonable grounds' are concepts having virtually the same meaning.' The following cases have expressly stated that the words may be used interchangeably and without distinction. Draper v. United States, 358 U.S. 307, 310, 79 S.Ct. 329, 3 L.Ed.2d 327. United States v. Vasquez, D.C.N.Y., 183 F.Supp. 190, 193. Smallwood v. Commonwealth, 305 Ky. 520, 524, 204 S.W.2d 945. McKeon v. National Cas. Co., 216 Mo.App. 507, 524, 270 S.W. 707. Adams v. State, 137 Tex.Cr. 43, 46, 128 S.W.2d 41. Stelloh v. Liban, 21 Wis.2d 119, 125, 124 N.W.2d 101. In the case of Lukas v. J. C. Penney Co., supra, at p. 361, 378 P.2d 717, the Oregon Supreme Court construed the meaning of the words 'reasonable grounds' in its 'shoplifting statute' as having the same meaning as they have in a statute authorizing arrest without a warrant and applied the probable cause standard to the facts before it.

The defendants assert that the judge improperly instructed the jury in stating that 'grounds are reasonable when there is a...

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