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Walmart Stores, Inc V. Cockrell

Background:
On November 6, 1996, Karl Cockrell went to a Walmart store with his parents. As he was leaving the store the loss-prevention officer for Walmart, Raymond Navarro, stopped him and asked him to follow him to the manager’s room. Once at the office the loss-prevention officer conducted a thorough search and even asked Karl Cockrell to take off a surgical bandage that he had on his abdomen. Even after Karl Cockrell’s explanation that the bandage covered a wound, the loss prevention officer still insisted on taking the bandage off. After the search when the officer didn’t find anything he let Karl Cockrell go. Later Karl Cockrell sued Walmart for false imprisonment. The trial court decided the case in favor of Karl Cockrell and awarded an amount of $300,000 for mental anguish. Walmart claimed that it had the “shopkeeper’s privilege” so it can’t be sued and the liability imposed on Walmart by the trial court is not justified. The court of appeals on both questions upheld the decision of the trial court. False Imprisonment:

False Imprisonment means intentional confinement of an individual without his or her consent and without proper authority and justification. If we look at the definition, to claim “false imprisonment” one must prove the following: 1) Intentional confinement

2) Without the consent of the person being held or imprisoned. 3) Without proper authority and justification.
For claiming false imprisonment physical force is not necessary. The person actions and words are enough for the other to assume that his or her right to move freely is compromised. For example If person A is carrying weapon and he in an intimidating tone asks person B to stop and not move. Even though person A has not physically touched person B and not physically restrained person B but person B can claim False imprisonment if he can prove the three points discussed earlier because the actions of person A are such that can be interpreted by B that he is not allowed to go anywhere until A says that he/she can go. In the case under discussion the action of loss prevention officer were such that anybody could have easily interpreted as of restraining another individual. Karl Cockrell was correct in assuming
that he is not allowed to leave freely unless the loss prevention officer lets him go. If we look at the three points for false imprisonment, the case rightly meets all the three criteria. Karl Cockrell was detained without his consent Loss prevention officer didn’t have a justifiable reason to believe that Karl Cockrell had shoplifted and he intentionally held Karl Cockrell. So the trial courts judgment that Karl Cockrell was “false imprisoned” is justified and correct.

If we look at the actions of the Walmart employee they were totally not ethical. If he had reason to believe that Karl Cockrell had shoplifted he should have had either witnesses to confirm they saw Karl Cockrell shoplift or he should have seem himself that Karl Cockrell shoplifted. Also there are other ways to confirm. He could have checked security cameras to see Karl Cockrell shoplifted. Secondly if he did decide to search he could have explained Karl Cockrell that he believes Karl Cockrell shoplifted. Also asking Karl Cockrell to take the bandage off was totally unnecessary because it shows loss prevention officer wasn’t sure of what Karl had stolen. If he thought it’s something big like a shirt. Then obviously it won’t fit under a bandage and if its small he could have asked Karl Cockrell’s permission if he could feel the bandage to see if there is anything hidden under it. This shows that all his actions were based on mere intuitions.

As far as Walmart is concerned, I believe that they could have handled the case a bit differently but the reason I see they supported their employee is to send a message to other employees that even though the employee might have been at fault, Walmart takes care of its employees. Just imagine if Walmart simply accepted the plaintiff’s assertion that he was falsely imprisoned and that Walmart fired the employee. It would send a message to the other employees that if something like this happens their employer will not support them and they will be fired. So next time if they see a person shoplifting they will be reluctant to take action that it might backfire somehow and they will end up losing their jobs. Walmart must have known that they are fighting a losing battle but by taking up a little loss I think they won on two fronts. First employee loyalty and second the case made it clear how a person is supposed to act if he/she suspects the other of
shoplifting.

From merchant’s protection the states have enacted a law called “merchant’s privilege”. This law gives the merchant’s the power to stop a shopper and detain them for questioning provided the following three points are met: 1) There is reasonable ground for suspicion.

2) Suspect is detained for reasonable time.
3) Investigations are conducted in a reasonable manner.
Again if we look at the case, the loss prevention officer didn’t meet any of the criteria to ensure that he handled the matter in a reasonable manner. Fist he wasn’t sure that the person under question had shoplifted. During trial the loss prevention officer told that the plaintiff acted in a suspicious way and that he saw the plaintiff near the women’s clothing section. If he had seen Karl Cockrell put something in the pocket or hide under his shirt, maybe he would have had better chance at this case but just because he suspected the plaintiff didn’t give him the right to perform a strip search. Secondly the manner in which the search was conducted was not reasonable; especially asking to remove the bandage was totally uncalled for. If the loss prevention officer had witnesses who had seen Karl Cockrell hide something or if he had looked at security cameras and verified that Kark Cockrell did in fact hide something under his shirt, Walmart might have some chance of proving shopkeeper’s privilege but looking at all the facts of the case there is no way for Walmart standing a chance of proving shopkeeper’s privilege.

So the decision of the trial court to award $300,000 to the plaintiff for mental anguish was totally justified and later the Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold trail courts judgment was correct as well.

Reference:
http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/False+Imprisonment http://caselaw.findlaw.com/tx-court-of-appeals/1337571.html

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