Civil Lawsuits for False Imprisonment

When one person is involuntarily detained by another, it could lead to a civil lawsuit for false imprisonment.

By , Attorney · University of Michigan Law School

When one person is unlawfully detained and held by another, it may amount to false imprisonment (also called wrongful imprisonment), which can form the basis of a civil lawsuit. In these kinds of cases, the detainee seeks compensation for any injuries and other damages resulting from the incident.

In a nutshell, false imprisonment occurs when someone (who we'll call Person A) is detained unwillingly by another person (Person B). What's more, Person B must:

  • intend to detain the plaintiff, and
  • do so without lawful authority.

False arrest is a form of false imprisonment, but it has unique elements. A false arrest claim will typically involve a legal authority, while false imprisonment can be committed by anyone, regardless of whether the imprisonment was preceded by an arrest.

Let's take a closer look at the elements of a false imprisonment claim, which can form the basis of an intentional tort under long-established principles of personal injury law.

Unwilling Detention

In order for a plaintiff to be unwillingly detained, he or she must be confined to a particular area and not permitted to leave. The area can be as small as a chair or as large as a state or other geographic area, for example an unlawful warrant that prevents a person from leaving the country. A detention does not typically occur when someone is prevented from entering a particular area.

The detention must involve either actual force or the threat of the use of force. Locking someone in a jail cell, in a closet, tying them to a chair, or holding their arm and not letting go are obvious uses of force, but anything that makes it impossible for someone to voluntarily leave an area will likely qualify.

A threat of force will also create a detention if the threat would make a reasonable person believe they would be hurt in some way if they attempted to leave the area. This includes threats made through deception (like being threatened with a toy gun). The key is that any reasonable person would believe they had no choice but to remain detained.

The harm threatened doesn't necessarily need to be bodily harm; a believable threat to property or to the plaintiff's reputation will probably also suffice. Note that the threat does not usually need to relate to immediate consequences, but the perceived harm must be reasonably imminent.

The person detained cannot have an easy means of escape that will negate the threatened harm. If there is such a means and the person does not use it, the detention might be considered voluntary and the defendant might avoid liability for false imprisonment.

For example, if someone is stopped by a store employee, but is not told to stay in the store and is not otherwise prevented from leaving, no imprisonment occurs even if the "detained" person thinks they are required to stay. But things like apprehension of a public struggle or a reasonable belief that someone is a law enforcement officer or other authority may be sufficient to eliminate the possibility of easy escape.

Intent to Detain the Plaintiff

It is not enough that a defendant accidentally or negligently created the conditions that confined the plaintiff, for example locking a closet door not knowing someone was inside. (Learn more about negligent versus intentional conduct.) However, false imprisonment does typically occur if the defendant intends to confine one person, but mistakenly confines another.

Unlawful Detention

In the majority of cases, whether a detention was lawful hinges on whether an underlying arrest was lawful. But it's important to note that even if an arrest was lawful, keeping the plaintiff in custody after he or she is found not guilty—or in custody longer than a sentence allows—can create grounds for false imprisonment.

The issue of whether a detention was lawful also arises in the context of shoplifters. Most states have statutes that dictate under what circumstances (and for how long) a store owner can detain a suspected shoplifter.

Generally, the store owner must have "probable cause" to believe that the person who is being detained has actually stolen something. Without probable cause, the detention is probably unlawful and the store owner has likely committed false imprisonment, as long as the other elements are satisfied (no easy escape, etc.). Even if probable cause does exist, if the store owner detains the plaintiff for too long or in an unreasonable or excessive manner, liability for false imprisonment is still a real possibility.

Learn more about intentional tort personal injury cases.

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