Applicability of the Shopkeepers Statute in Defending a Claim for False Imprisonment
When can a Shopkeeper detain an employee or customer suspected of theft? South Carolina courts hold firm that in order to be afforded the protections under the Shopkeeper Statute or other similar common law doctrine, a detention by a merchant must be done in close proximity to the alleged crime. A delay in detention may result in a finding that the detention was not reasonable, and may subject a merchant to civil exposure.
The Court of Appeals recently reiterated the timing of detention in the unpublished opinion of Lisa Styles v. Southeastern Grocers, Inc, Case No. 2020-000818, Unpub. Op. 2023-UP-319 (Ct. App. Sept. 27, 2023). Styles, a former employee of the Defendants, alleged to have been detained in an offer at the grocery store after being suspected of previously stealing store product. While there were disputed facts over the substance of conversations during the detention, relevant to this article and analysis of the Shopkeepers Statute is that Styles was not observed in real-time stealing product. Rather, the detention was weeks after the suspected theft. Styles filed suit, asserting (among other causes of action) a claim for false imprisonment. The trial court denied Defendants’ motion for directed verdict. After the jury awarded Plaintiff $100,000 for her claims, the court denied Defendants’ post-trial JNOV regarding this cause of action. Defendants appealed.
“To prevail on a claim for false imprisonment, the plaintiff must establish: (1) the defendant restrained the plaintiff, (2) the restraint was intentional, and (3) the restraint was unlawful.” Huffman v. Sunshine Recycling, LLC, 426 S.C. 262, 271, 826 S.E.2d 609, 614 (2019). For purposes of this article, we focus on whether a restraint is unlawful as applied to claims against shopkeepers.
South Carolina Code Section 16-13-140, commonly referred to as a “Shopkeeper’s Statute,” states: “In any action brought by reason of having been delayed by a merchant or merchant’s employee or agent on or near the premises of a mercantile establishment for the purpose of investigation concerning the ownership of any merchandise, it shall be a defense to such action if: (1) the person was delayed in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable time to permit such investigation, and (2) reasonable cause existed to believe that the person delayed had committed the crime of shoplifting.” S.C. Code Ann. § 16-13-140 (2015) (emphasis added). South Carolina courts have fleshed out the meaning of “reasonable cause.” In reading the plain language of the Shopkeepers Statute, in concert with similar common law doctrine, the detention can only be deemed to be reasonable if done “during the commission of the suspected wrongdoing.” Fulkenberry v. Spring Mills, Inc., 271 S.C. 377, 380, 247 S.E.2d 445, 447 (1978). The Styles Court emphasized this point in referring to modern treatises to hold to the view that this kind of detention is allowed only in proximity to the commission of a crime, citing to Restatement of Employment Law § 4.06 (“Such a restraint must be reasonably necessary to avert any injury or theft that the employer has reasonable cause to believe is occurring or is imminent ….”), 35 C.J.S. False Imprisonment § 29 (stating that a detention can occurred when the merchant’s agent “has reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that a theft has occurred or is occurring on or about the store premises.”), 32 Am. Jur. 2d False Imprisonment § 65 (“The right to detain a person suspected of wrongdoing exists only during commission of the offense and does not arise where the offense was completed at a prior time.”).
Following an analysis of the Shopkeepers Statute, common law doctrine, and modern treatises, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in denying the defendants’ motion as the evidence supports that Styles was detained weeks after the alleged theft. Therefore, the detention fell outside the protection of Faulkenburg and its common law counterparts.