Pool v. City of Oakland

Citation232 Cal.Rptr. 528,728 P.2d 1163,42 Cal.3d 1051
Decision Date29 December 1986
Docket NumberS.F. 24860
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Parties, 728 P.2d 1163 George Lloyd POOL, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. CITY OF OAKLAND et al., Defendants and Appellants

James E. Cox and Dan L. Garrett, Jr., Martinez, for plaintiff and respondent.

Richard E. Winnie, City Atty., Mark Shragge, Deputy City Atty., Oakland, David Weingard, Hayward, Mintz, Giller, Himmelman & Mintz, David A. Himmelman, Oakland, and David S. Honler, for defendants and appellants.

BIRD, Chief Justice.

Do the facts presented to the jury below support a finding of negligence against defendant Safeway Stores, Inc. (Safeway) for the harm it caused when, as part of its campaign to detect counterfeit currency, it reported to the police an erroneous and unsupported suspicion that a customer was tendering a counterfeit bill?

Does the trial court's error in instructing the jury on the issue of reasonable cause to arrest require reversal of the general verdict against defendant City of Oakland (Oakland)?

I. 1

On the afternoon of May 1, 1977, plaintiff George Lloyd Pool was arrested at a Safeway supermarket after tendering a $100 bill that did not bear the phrase "In God We Trust." The Safeway employee, believing the bill might be counterfeit, summoned the Oakland Police Department. The police eventually arrested Pool and held him in jail overnight. Mr. Pool's bill was not counterfeit, nor was he attempting to defraud Safeway.

The events leading to Pool's arrest occurred as follows.

In the week preceding the incident, Pool had cashed a paycheck at a local Wells Fargo bank. The bank issued him a few small bills and fifteen $100 bills. At least one of these $100 bills was from series 1950A--a series upon which the motto "In God We Trust" does not appear. The record shows that all valid $100 bills "of series dated through 1950" do not bear the words "In God We Trust."

At Safeway, Pool tendered such a bill to pay for approximately $7 worth of groceries. The checker told him to wait in line while she got his change. He waited patiently for about 10 minutes for the checker to return. However, a new checker took over the post. As Pool began to ask the new checker about his change, a store employee pointed him out to two uniformed Oakland police officers who immediately seized him by the arm and placed him in handcuffs.

The police had been summoned because Safeway was on the alert for counterfeit $100 bills. Apparently, Safeway stores in the Oakland area had been receiving an inordinate number of counterfeit $100 bills. All Safeway employees in the Oakland area had been instructed to watch for such bills and to screen $100 bills for indicia of counterfeit status. This screening process was to include checking the serial number of the bill against a list of bogus serial numbers that Safeway had prepared.

When Pool presented his bill, the checker brought it to the cashier's booth for change and allowed the assistant manager to inspect it closely. The checker testified that she saw the assistant manager check the bill against the list of serial numbers. However, the assistant manager denied ever having seen such a list, although he said he had heard about it.

Safeway employees had also been instructed to look for the motto "In God We Trust" on $100 bills because Safeway management believed that bills lacking that motto might be counterfeit. No basis for this belief appears in the record. Indeed, if any inference may be drawn, it is that the lack of "In God We Trust" on $100 bills is not an indicium of counterfeit status. The police report states that valid "bills of series dated through 1950 did not have 'In God We Trust' on the rear. " (Emphasis added.) Pool's bill was a "1950 Series A."

Nevertheless, when the assistant manager saw that "In God We Trust" was missing from Pool's bill, he treated the bill as a possible counterfeit, as instructed. He reported his suspicions to the police. When the police arrived, the assistant manager showed them Pool's "suspicious" bill, next to a "legitimate" bill--i.e., one of more recent vintage--to illustrate where the "missing" motto should be.

Mr. Pool, waiting in the checkout line, knew none of this. When the officers approached him, he protested that he had done nothing wrong and that he merely wanted to pay for his groceries or get his money back. The officers ignored his pleas.

One officer held Pool's wrist behind his back and threatened to break his arm. The officers asked Pool for identification, which he produced. They also asked him where he obtained the bill. At no time did they explain the nature of the problem. Pool continued to insist that he had done nothing wrong.

As the officers escorted Pool from the store with his arms behind his back and an officer holding each arm, he was shoved up against a cigarette machine. Apparently he did not suffer physical injuries. In the parking lot, the officers frisked Pool in public view, then pushed him into the back of a patrol car and took him to the police station. At no time did they advise him of his rights.

At the station, Pool was fingerprinted, photographed and subject to a strip search, which included a visual inspection of his rectum. It was not until this point that Pool learned he was suspected of passing counterfeit currency.

Within minutes after arriving at the police station, the officers determined that Pool's $100 bill was valid. The verification procedure consisted of calling a telephone service instituted by the Department of Treasury for this purpose. The entire process took less than six minutes.

Nevertheless, the police held Pool overnight on charges of interfering with a police investigation. 2 (Pen.Code, § 148.) 3 They offered Pool a chance to make a phone call, which he refused. Pool was released the following afternoon.

Pool brought an action against Safeway for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, and false imprisonment. Pool sued Oakland for false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery (i.e., using excessive force to effectuate the arrest), intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of his civil rights (42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985).

The case was heard by a jury in 1981. At the close of plaintiff's case, Safeway moved for nonsuit under section 581c of the Code of Civil Procedure. 4 The trial court granted the motion as to all claims against Safeway, except the negligent infliction of emotional distress cause of action. Safeway made no objection to instructions given to the jury on the issue of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

On its own motion, the court refused to instruct the jury on the civil rights claims against Oakland, finding no evidence of a city policy or conspiracy to deprive Pool of his civil rights. The court submitted the other claims against Oakland (assault and battery, false arrest and false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress) to the jury. Oakland did not request special verdicts for each cause of action. However, Oakland did request fact-specific instructions on the issue of false arrest, which the trial court refused to deliver.

The jury returned a general verdict against each defendant and assessed damages at $45,000. Safeway moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative a new trial, claiming that the evidence did not support the jury's findings of negligence. Safeway also argued that the magnitude of the damage award indicated improper consideration of sympathy, passion or prejudice. Oakland moved for a new trial, claiming that the jury was improperly instructed on the charge of false arrest and that the damage award was excessive. The trial court denied both motions and this appeal followed. 5


The discussion may be simplified by noting what is not at issue in this case. Safeway concedes that it owes its customers a duty of due care to avoid exposing them to foreseeable harms. (Cf. Molien v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (1980) 27 Cal.3d 916, 923, 167 Cal.Rptr. 831, 616 P.2d 813 [hospital's duty to patient]; Ewing v. Cloverleaf Bowl (1978) 20 Cal.3d 389, 143 Cal.Rptr. 13, 572 P.2d 1155 [bartender's duty to bar patron]; Bullis v. Security Pac. Nat. Bank (1978) 21 Cal.3d 801, 813, 148 Cal.Rptr. 22, 582 P.2d 109 [bank's duty to customer to prevent misappropriation of funds]; Weaver v. Bank of America (1963) 59 Cal.2d 428, 431, 30 Cal.Rptr. 4, 380 P.2d 644 [bank's duty to customer to honor duly presented check].) 6 Safeway does not challenge the trial court's instructions explaining the due care standard to the jury. Safeway does not challenge the trial court's instructions regarding the standard of care by which its conduct was to be judged. 7 (See Molien v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 923, 167 Cal.Rptr. 831, 616 P.2d 813.)

However, Safeway does argue that it satisfied that standard and that the jury's finding to the contrary is not supported by substantial evidence.

Pool counters with several theories under which the jury could have reasonably found Safeway negligent in this case. First, both Safeway employees who testified agreed that Safeway had published a list of serial numbers found on bogus bills. The checker testified that she saw the assistant manager check that list. From this the jury could infer either that the list was incorrect, or that the manager misread it. In either case a mistake was made and that mistake foreseeably led to Pool's injury.

A second theory assumes that the jury could have found credible the assistant manager's testimony that he never saw the list of serial numbers and did not check it. Under this version of the facts, the failure of Safeway to give the assistant manager a copy of the list was negligent, especially since he was in charge of the store that day.

Finally, regardless of the existence of the list, Safeway could be found liable for giving...

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