Hales v. McCrory-McLellan Corp., 260 N.C. 568 (1963)

Nov. 27, 1963 · Supreme Court of North Carolina
260 N.C. 568


(Filed 27 November 1963.)

1. Corporations § 26—

A corporation may be held liable for false imprisonment committed by its employees in the course of their employment and within the scope of their authority in having a person arrested on a charge of shoplifting.

2. False Imprisonment § 1—

Calling a policeman to aid in restraining a person does not legalize an unlawful restraint.

3. Same—

While restraint must be involuntary in order to constitute the basis of an action for false imprisonment, no actual force is required if there be an implied threat of force sufficient to compel a person to remain where he does not wish to remain or to go where he does not wish to go.

4. False Imprisonment § 2—

Plaintiff’s evidence to 'the effect that while she was engaged in exchanging certain articles previously pur-chased at defendant's store she was charged with shoplifting, that an employee ordered her to come to a designated spot and told- another employee to call the police, that after the arrival of the .police plaintiff was taken to the police station where an affidavit was sworn ¡to by another employee, and that plaintiff was released ■upon bond, held sufficient to support -an inference by the jury that plaintiff was induced to believe that any attempt on her part to leave the scene would not be allowed, and therefore that the restraint was involuntary.

Appeal by plaintiff from Cowper, J., Jamie, 1963 Session, Wilson Superior Court.

The plaintiff instituted this ¡civil action on August 24, 1961, to recover from the 'defendants compensatory amid punitive damages for false imprisonment and islander. At the clase of the evidence the court entered judgment of compulsory nonsuit, from which the plaintiff appealed.

Lucas, Band, Bose and Morns, and Louis B. Meyer for plaintiff appellant.

Gardner, C'onnor & Lee by Cynis F. Lee and Baymond M. Taylor for defendants appellees.

Higgins, J.

The appeal presents .this question of law: Was the evidence offered at the trial, when considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, sufficient to. permit the jury to find the defendants *569either actually or -by procurement caused the plaintiff to be falsely imprisoned and falsely accused of shoplifting as a result of which she sustained 'damages? In addition to the general denial, .the defendants by amendment to the answer pleaded that more than six .months elapsed after the 'action accrued and before it was instituted.

The evidence disclosed that the corporate defendant operated in the City of Wilson a self-service variety store. Merchandise was displayed on counters from which customers were permitted to make .their selections to be paid for on their way out. The indivdual defendants were agents and servants of the 'corporate defendant and were in charge of its store.

The plaintiff testified that on September 3, 1960, she returned to the defendant’s store 'certain .articles previously purchased Which she sought to 'exchange for more appropriate sizes. While so engaged, the individual defendants, acting for the corporatiion, charged her with shoplifting; that notwithstanding her complete innocence of the charge, the 'defendant Morphis ordered her to “come over here with me . . . you know what for . . . He told her (Mrs. Baker, another employee) to call the police . . . We stood at the end of the counter waiting until the policeman came ... We met the policeman about middieiway the aifele and we went into this little room. . . . one of -the policemen asked Mr. Morphis if he wanted to sign papers and he said yes. Mr. Morphis told one of the policemen that he saw me when I came down with .a bag 'and he knew what the bag was for. That . . . was before Mr. Morphis said he wanted to sign papers. . . . Mr. Meares (another employee) . . . came in (a little room adjacent to 'the display counters) and he said he knew what it was about and what I was in there for and to go ahead and sign the papers. ... I was taken over to the police station by Mr. Tant (police officer) . . . When I got to the police station, I went to the desk and gave them my name and address'. . . . After I answered the questions, I was told that I could go back to a little room and wait there. I 'had called my daddy . . . (He) signed my bond .and I wa;s released.”

Immediately an 'affidavit sworn to by defendant Morphis was filed in the recorder’s court. Based thereon a warrant for the plaintiff’s arrest was issued charging her with the 'crime of shoplifting. If the plaintiff was under unlawful arrest, not only the individual defendants but their principal, the 'corporation itself, may be held civilly liable. Kelly v. Shoe Co., 190 N.C. 406, 130 S.E. 32.

However, defendants stressfiully contend the plaintiff was not under ■.arrest; that no force was exerted; that she was not at my time restrained ; that she remained in the store until after the officers appear*570-ed, accompanied them to the ©mall room -adjacent to' toe counters, and later to toe police station entirely of her own free will.

From toe foregoing circumstances, may not the jury, however, infer that the defendants', backed up by toe presence and participation of two police officers whom they had- called, induced toe plaintiff to' consider herself under restraint 'and to believe that any move or attempt on her part to leave the scene would niot'be allowed? Two1 of the store’s employees, -in toe presence of police officers, 'accused toe plaintiff of larceny. Upon receiving 'assurances the accusers would sign the necessary paper’s, the officers and toe accusers conducted toe plaintiff to- police headquarters where she was charged and released only after she gave 'bond. A jury may find' that she was justified in assuming sire was under involuntary restraint. It may further find toe restraint was unlawful.

Under toe decisions of toi© Gaunt, restraint must be consented to or it must be lawful. Galling a .policeman to assist does not legalize 'an unlawful restraint. Long v. Eagle Stores, 214 N.C. 146, 198 S.E. 573. “False imprisonment is the illegal restraint of the person of any one against hiis will.” Parrish v. Mfg. Co., 211 N.C. 7, 188 S.E. 817; Martin v. Houck, 141 N.C. 317, 54 S.E. 291. Justice Walker, in Riley v. Stone, 174 N.C. 588, 94 S.E. 434, stated toe rule: “Force is essential only in toe sense of imposing restraint. . . . Thie essence of personal coercion is toe effect of the alleged wrongful conduct on toe will of plaintiff. There is no- legal wrong unless toe detention was involuntary. False imprisonment may be committed by worlds -alone, or by acts alone, or by boto; it is not necessary that toe individual be actually 'confined, or -assaulted, or even that he should be touched. 19 Cyc., pp. 319 and 323. Any exercise of force, or express -or implied threat of force, iby which in faict toe other person is deprived of his liberty, compelled to remain- where he does not wish to remain, or to go where he does mot wish to go, is an imprisonment. . . . The essential thing is toe restraint of the person. This may -be caused by threats, ais well as by actual force, and the threats may be by conduct or by words. If toe words -or conduct iaire su-ch -as to induce -a reasonable -apprehension of force, and- the means of coercion -are lat hand, -a person- may be -as effectually restrained and -deprived of liberty -as by prison bans. . .

The plaintiff testified, -an-d offered supporting evidence tending to corroborate her, that she w-ais innocent of any wrongdoing. The evidence, in the light most -favorable to her, -entitles her to- h-ave the jury reso-lve toe issues raised by toe pleadings. This disposition leaves the plea-o-f toe- -statute -of limitations unadjudica-ted.