Held hostage by Wally World
August 15, 2005 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Did Wal*Mart kidnap me? The power went out and they wouldn't let us leave.

Last night at about 10 our small city suffered a power outage while I was shopping at the Super Wal*Mart with my 7yo son. It was nearly pitch black and the back up generator(s) apparently didn't kick in. (neither did the new generator at a local supermarket where my sil was). We were escorted (herded?) with flashlights to the front of the building and told we couldn't leave until power was restored . Babies and kids (including mine) were scared and crying and there was a lot of general confusion. Reason we weren't allowed to leave? They wanted to make sure we weren't stealing anything. Eventually, after 20 minutes or so, when it was obvious the power wasn't going to quickly be restored, they let us leave. After checking us over with flashlights.

What I want to know is if they had any right to do this? Were we being held hostage, kidnapped, falsely imprisioned? And how the hell could I have gotten out of there if they had insisted we stay any longer?

My sil at the supermarket simply left her cart and was escorted out to her car by a stockboy carrying a flashlight. Within 10 minutes of the outage.
posted by LadyBonita to Law & Government (57 answers total)
 
Screw that. I would have said that they either open the doors or I call the cops and complain about unlawful confinement. They do not have the right to simply tell you that you can't leave. Complaining to the cops now probably won't help, but I would talk forcefully to the regional head office and have the manager (or whoever was in charge then) disciplined.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 2:07 PM on August 15, 2005


That's pretty straightforward false imprisonment. Sue that worthless piece-of-shit company's ass off. And for fuck's sake, never shop there again. Ugh.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:16 PM on August 15, 2005


Depending on your juridiction, the accuser must have proof that something is missing from the store in order to accuse you of shoplifting (and detain you). This sounds like a gross violation of your rights, I would get yourself one of those personal injury lawyers. See if the one who did the JC Penny case is available. Seriously this could mean a big blow to WalMart's stupid policies and a wad of cash.
posted by geoff. at 2:23 PM on August 15, 2005


As for suing, check this out. There's a long history of success against Wal*Mart.

But whether or not you sue, talk to your local media outlets. Stories like this need to get out!
posted by gurple at 2:24 PM on August 15, 2005


Here's one of the relevant cases from that link I just posted, so you don't have to go hunting:

"Alabama Woman Sues Store for False Imprisonment After Being Detained on Suspicion of Shoplifting — $200,000 Award Affirmed

Plaintiff sued Wal-Mart for false imprisonment after a store employee questioned and detained her on the suspicion that she stole a coat from the store. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the jury’s $200,000 award.

Wal-Mart v. Sharon Jones, 533 So.2d 551(Ala. 1988). Ronald A. Drummond, Scottsboro, AL for plaintiff. Donna S. Pate, Huntsville, AL for Wal-Mart."
posted by gurple at 2:25 PM on August 15, 2005


The exact name for the crime varies from state to state (in Indiana it's called criminal confinement), but I think it's pretty much illegal anywhere in the US.

Complaining to the cops now probably won't help

Maybe not, but it couldn't hurt. And it does sound like there's an awful lot of witnesses, if the police or prosecutor can find some of them. IANAL.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:27 PM on August 15, 2005


In addition to beaing badly treated, that sounds unsafe. I worked for a mall retailer years ago, and we were instructed to close the chain link door to the mall and have a staffer there to let people out. We had to close, and we had to ask customers to leave the store. If their emergency lights were not working, that's especially unsafe. I would call the town, and make sure that this unsafe condition is investigated.

And you can get out by just leaving. Every exit should have a light, and there should be sufficient battery operated lights to safely leave. If they try to stop you, it's assault, or threatening, or some other form of criminal behavior.
posted by theora55 at 2:30 PM on August 15, 2005


Consider yourself lucky...
posted by Vidiot at 2:30 PM on August 15, 2005


Funny, I was in a Toronto Walmart during the "great blackout", they just let everyone walk out.
posted by bobo123 at 2:50 PM on August 15, 2005


Is there some way to locate others who were detained with you, such as an online community bulletin board, etc.? If you were to proceed with a legal case against Walmart, I suspect that an attorney could advertise for other potential plantiffs to join in a class action lawsuit.
posted by ericb at 2:52 PM on August 15, 2005


Although it causes me physical pain to see someone link to effugas, Vidiot's post does remind me to comment on one thing: if you, person reading this, find yourself in such a skeevy circumstance, be careful how agressive you choose to be in resisting these idiots. Just because they're wrong doesn't make them less dangerous.

About ten years ago my mother sat on a jury in a civil case against Publix, a security company they contracted to and an employee of that security company. The underlying case was an individual who was shot by a security guard when he refused to put back a single lime that he was walking out with. He'd only gotten 2 of the "3 for $1" limes he'd earlier purchased and when the cashier refused to assist him, he informed her he'd be taking this lime he was due. The armed security guard ordered him to stop, he stated he was only taking what was his due and kept going. The security guard shot him in the back.

So if the over-enthuseastic Wal-Mart drones want to hold you illegally in the store in a situation similar to LadyBonita's, be careful in your resistance. Call the cops, write down names, walk if you can but don't assume they're going to behave rationally.
posted by phearlez at 2:57 PM on August 15, 2005


No they didn't have the right. IANAL, but I think you've probably got a good case for a class-action suit. Talk to a lawyer.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 3:09 PM on August 15, 2005


Aren't there any attorneys here? It would be interesting to hear their take on it.
posted by rolypolyman at 3:19 PM on August 15, 2005


It's difficult to get out when the doors are all electric (I assume). Is there some other way, other than the keys held by the employees?

There were at least 100 people (shoppers) there, maybe 200 or more. A LOT of confusion and bascially just floor workers telling us what to do (or not to do, in this case). It wasn't like a manager made some speech to us. The couple of times I managed to stop a worker and say that I wanted to just leave I was told something like, "We're working on it." One time I said that I wanted to speak to someone who could get me out of there RIGHT NOW and was told they'd try to find someone for me to talk to (never saw them again). I imagine a lot of people were doing that and towards the end things were getting a bit loud.
posted by LadyBonita at 3:34 PM on August 15, 2005


Attorneys don't give legal advice to non-clients over the internet, in general.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:35 PM on August 15, 2005


No, Wal-Mart didn't have a right to detain you -- but that doesn't mean you get to collect megabucks. Did employees physically restrain you? Did they lock the doors or otherwise obstruct your exit? Or did you simply obey when the manager told you not to leave?

Moreover, you don't describe being damaged. Did you miss a court appearance? Was your car towed because you couldn't feed the parking meter? Were you prevented from picking up tickets after a radio station announced your name?

From your 200-word description, it doesn't sound like you have a lawsuit. (10¢ MeFi advice above notwithstanding.) I'm not even certain you were "wronged." Did you object? It sounds like a retail jockey overstepped his authority and a crowd of customers obeyed like a flock of sheep. And this happened at Wal-Mart. Go figure.
posted by cribcage at 3:36 PM on August 15, 2005


It's difficult to get out when the doors are all electric (I assume). Is there some other way, other than the keys held by the employees?

An electrical failure won't cause electric doors to become locked. If the power goes out, they can usually be pushed opened, assuming they were unlocked to begin with.
posted by blue mustard at 3:45 PM on August 15, 2005


It's difficult to get out when the doors are all electric (I assume)

Nope. I don't think there's a state in the union where you won't find the fire code mandating break-away electric doors. A slight to moderate push and *p0p* they're off the breakaway and swinging free. If you start looking for it you'll notice it all the time - people bop them with their carts trying to get out quicker than the door opens. They pop loose and latch back into their tracks again easy as pie.
posted by phearlez at 3:47 PM on August 15, 2005


Moreover, you don't describe being damaged. Did you miss a court appearance? Was your car towed because you couldn't feed the parking meter? Were you prevented from picking up tickets after a radio station announced your name?

All of these are irrelevant. I also like how, once again, it's the victim's fault. Should she have risked leaving and being tackled and killed?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:51 PM on August 15, 2005


cribcage, I completely understand what you're saying. I'm not interested in a lawsuit anyway, too much trouble & time for me. Mostly I'm interested to know what my rights were. I did say that I wanted to leave and asked for someone who could actually let me out. I had read/heard about the murder of the alleged Wal*Mart shoplifter and I wasn't about to make a run for it, but --

Is there a way out of the store when the doors are electric? And did I have the right to refuse to stay even though they couldn't put me through their theft monitors? Did they even have the right to look me (& even my 7yo) over with a flashlight before I left?

I was furious. I wanted to leave, but I didn't know how far or even how I could push the issue and get results. I also didn't want to further frighten my son.
posted by LadyBonita at 3:52 PM on August 15, 2005


No, you were not kidnapped, held hostage or falsely imprisoned. You were held up for 20 minutes at a walmart. I realize lots of people hate walmart and wish them ill, but this is melodramatic.
posted by Gary at 3:52 PM on August 15, 2005


That's good to know about the doors. I thought maybe they'd go on automatic lockdown when the electricity went out.

I had thought about just trying the doors - but again, being chased and tackled was fresh on my brain - and I just didn't know if I truly had the right to do that. Sheep mentality possibly, but it would have been mob mentality if it'd gone on much longer.
posted by LadyBonita at 3:56 PM on August 15, 2005


but this is melodramatic.
posted by Gary at 3:52 PM PST


Gary it's not melodramatic, it's truth. They could have led us straight out the doors when they first rounded us up. Instead they chose to keep us there because (it was stated) the security systems weren't operable.
posted by LadyBonita at 4:00 PM on August 15, 2005


Anecdotal evidence - a friend of mine who filed a tort suit put very little effort into it and got a few thousand well-deserved bucks in return. She just went down to talk to a lawyer who took her testimony, and a few months later got a check in the mail when the company settled.
posted by footnote at 4:17 PM on August 15, 2005


All of these are irrelevant.
This is why you can't seek legal advice online, and it's the mortal flaw of AskMe: You pose a legal question, and some teenager "explains" that damages are irrelevant.

The last time I said this, I was ignored, but here I go again: If you don't know what you're talking about, keep your mouth shut.

LadyBonita: No, they did not have a right to search you. Wal-Mart is entitled to operate a security alarm on their property; but it's their responsibility to maintain that alarm, and they cannot condition your exit upon the operation of that alarm.

I'd suggest you not waste any more time and energy on this. I think the replies advising you to sue are ill-informed (to be polite). But maybe your 200-word summary omits relevant details. If you feel so inclined, I encourage you to meet with an attorney. I don't know how bar practices vary between states, but I suspect you are entitled to one $25 half-hour consultation per year. Contact your state bar association for a referral.

Maybe you chose the best solution to a difficult situation by not frightening your son. And maybe you should avoid Wal-Mart in the future.
posted by cribcage at 4:27 PM on August 15, 2005


Very simple: pick up the yellow pages and call a lawyer. It will take you all of one minute for you to describe the situation to them so they can assess for themselves whether it's worth it to sue. If you don't have a case, they'll just tell you "oh well" and be done with it. Two minutes out of your life. Tops.

If I knew the potential settlement could be as high as that Alabama case gurple found, I think I could find the few dozen seconds necessary to make the call.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:46 PM on August 15, 2005


"You pose a legal question, and some teenager "explains" that damages are irrelevant."

No smart lawyer is going to give her advice in this thread. So would you prefer twenty answers that all say: consultanattorney consultanattorney consultanattorney consultanattorney? Perhaps you would. But my answer remains valid: in pretty much any state what happened - at least as LadyBonita explains it - WalMart's actions are false imprisonment or criminal confinment or whatever you want to call it. The reason I said those things you listed were "irrelevant" is because you can't hold someone against their will even if they're not very busy that day.

Perhaps it makes a difference if you bring into question compensatory v. punitive damges, but the fact remains that the original poster does indeed have a case, and I think that her litigation would be successful.

So, LadyBonita: consultanattorney consultanattorney consultanattorney consultanattorney.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:51 PM on August 15, 2005


Seriously, I think you should consider contacting a media outlet of some sort. And if they're not interested in the story, the people who run the Always Low Prices website most definitely will be.

People who stand up to Wal-Mart and try to get in the gears of their PR machine need every story like this they can get.
posted by gurple at 4:59 PM on August 15, 2005


I suspect that an attorney could advertise for other potential plantiffs to join in a class action lawsuit.

Without a receipt how do you prove you were there? An advertisment would bring out the nuts. Not gonna happen.

Put me in the over-reaction camp. If you had refused to stay and they physically restrained you, ok. Otherwise, well, is there anything people won't sue for?
posted by justgary at 5:09 PM on August 15, 2005


So, hypothetically, if you thought you were criminally wronged in a situation like this, is there any need for a lawyer? Or could you just go down to the police department and file a criminal complaint yourself? I'm not talking about personally suing them for damage.
posted by smackfu at 5:13 PM on August 15, 2005


Without a receipt how do you prove you were there? An advertisment would bring out the nuts. Not gonna happen.

True. Good point.
posted by ericb at 5:37 PM on August 15, 2005


Find yourself a lawyer rather quickly. This sounds like an open and shut case.
posted by sled at 5:48 PM on August 15, 2005


That same exact thing happened at our local Walmart a couple of weeks ago...generators did not work, and people were detained (my daughter works there which is how I know.) It happened earlier in the evening, about seven, I think. Eventually they did let people leave.

Please do update this. I would love to know how it works out.
posted by konolia at 6:22 PM on August 15, 2005


But my answer remains valid...
Your answer was, and continues to be, wrong. Telling customers not to leave, per se, does not constitute false imprisonment. And the ability to show damages in a complaint is more than simply "relevant." It is required.

Perhaps you missed that day in law school. Perhaps, as someone wrote, you were distracted by a bumblebee.
posted by cribcage at 6:48 PM on August 15, 2005


It seems to me that a key question would be: Did anyone actually physically attempt to leave, and what happened to them when they did? And if not, what were you led to believe would happen to you if you tried?
posted by bingo at 7:10 PM on August 15, 2005


Without a receipt how do you prove you were there? An advertisment would bring out the nuts. Not gonna happen.

WalMart has security cameras. I would assume in the event of a lawsuit they'd be compelled to produce the tapes.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:16 PM on August 15, 2005


Cribcage, you're either not a lawyer or really flirting with a disciplinary violation. You should probably quiet down.
posted by footnote at 7:22 PM on August 15, 2005


Why is this going in the civil court direction? Isn't false imprisonment a misdemeanor offense? My non-existent law experience suggests the problem is that the police department doesn't want to bring charges against the store/company/whatever, or (more likely) is unaware of what happened.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:28 PM on August 15, 2005


And can the original poster PLEASE mention where this happened? I have a mind to call Wal-Mart's headquarters and ask if this is routine policy.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:29 PM on August 15, 2005


WalMart has security cameras.
But were they working?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:30 PM on August 15, 2005


You were kidnapped. You could call the prosecutor's office and ask to press charges, or hire a lawyer and file a civil suit. How much resistance to being held might be important as evidence that your staying was not consensual. Good luck.
posted by caddis at 7:41 PM on August 15, 2005


Telling customers not to leave, per se, does not constitute false imprisonment.

You are ignoring the intimidation factor. If I go to a bank and say, "Give me all your money," without producing a weapon, and they give it to me, am I breaking the law? I mean, I just asked them for money, and they gave it to me!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:48 PM on August 15, 2005


Just about a year ago multiple hundreds of people died in a supermarket in Paraguay because the manager locked the main door, appearantly out of fear that people would take advantage of the distraction to shoplift.

It's nice to think that such a thing couldn't happen here, but LadyBonita's story doesn't give me hope. This is the sort of thing its worth making a bit of a stink about, not so much to shame or extract damages from WallMart as to remind people that they don't have to listen to lame-ass pinheads.
posted by Good Brain at 8:27 PM on August 15, 2005


that should have read "died in a supermarket fire in Paraguay
posted by Good Brain at 8:28 PM on August 15, 2005


I believe cribcage is a journalist.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:30 PM on August 15, 2005


It was definitely wrong, but they can weasel out of it.

Wal-Mart would likely argue that they never actually said you couldn't leave. They may have even danced around it at the time, saying something like "sit tight and we'll have these doors open soon" and "let me get someone for you to talk to". Then they can say you just assumed you couldn't leave. On top of that, they'll claim they did it for safety, or because they felt they should have a Code Adam lockdown.

Your best bet is to know your rights (and, apparently, assume they'll be violated while shopping at Wal-Mart)
posted by stefanie at 8:36 PM on August 15, 2005


Call 911. You were being detained, weren't you? Begin to leave while the 911 line tapes the entire incident. 911 tapes are admissible in court.
PS: You owe me a nickel for my advice or I will sue.
posted by buzzman at 9:01 PM on August 15, 2005


No smart lawyer is going to give her advice in this thread.

Give me a fucking break. IAAL and I'm happy to give advice on this thread. Posting anonymously on an internet bulletin board doesn't create an attorney/client relationship, and giving advice of a general nature isn't going to get anybody disciplined or disbarred. Jesus. Talk about melodrama.

False imprisonment is a tort, and in some jurisdictions a crime. The elements of the tort will vary from jurisdiction, but the Wikipedia article on false imprisonment is as good as any.

As for damages, the mere deprivation of liberty and any mental distress associated with it is sufficient.

I agree with the poster who said it's not going to cost a lot of time to tell the details of your story to a plaintiff's attorney and let him advise you whether you have a case worth pursuing. The simple fact that WalMart is involved may be sufficient to pique someone's interest.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 9:27 PM on August 15, 2005


WalMart has security cameras.
But were they working?


I assume they were when I arrived, which doesn't prove when I left. My son was a witness to my presence and I told a few people about the event immediately afterwards. And Wal*Mart certainly can't state that no one was there.

And can the original poster PLEASE mention where this happened? I have a mind to call Wal-Mart's headquarters and ask if this is routine policy.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:29 PM


Please email me if you really want to know. I'm in the Southwest, but not Texas. Wal*Mart doesn't talk though, so good luck getting them to tell you what their policies are.

I wasn't thinking lawsuit at the time, only about preventing my son from being witness or party to any further trouble. I'm still not thinking lawsuit. What I am thinking is that I will file complaints with whatever & whoever I can, and also meet with an attorney so that in the future I can be prepared with a polite statement such as- "Excuse me but you have to let me out right now because otherwise you are violating my rights, blah blah." If at that point I wasn't freed then I'd feel comfortable and justified in filing a lawsuit.

Anyway, thanks everyone, I've learned a lot.
posted by LadyBonita at 10:00 PM on August 15, 2005


I'm still a big fan of the "don't shop at wal-mart" solution.

Of course I believe in the absurdist notion that corporate behaviour can be affected by consumer choices.
posted by mosch at 12:21 AM on August 16, 2005


mosch, I really wish I could get away with not shopping at WalMart, and I'll be trying harder not to from now on. It's just that when WalMart comes to small towns everything else closes down. It's difficult to shop. Nearest town of any size is 2 hours away. Same thing happened in the small town in CO I once lived in - they came to town & other businesses died. Wish it weren't that way, but it is.
posted by LadyBonita at 12:54 AM on August 16, 2005


LadyBonita, I would so love to see you make suit and win. Both for your benefit (because YOU are smart enough to ask if this was actionable) and especially to take a little nibble out of the hide of Walmart. You know its the right thing to do, just as well as you thought to ask in the first place.
posted by Goofyy at 1:36 AM on August 16, 2005


You are ignoring the intimidation factor. If I go to a bank and say, "Give me all your money," without producing a weapon, and they give it to me, am I breaking the law? I mean, I just asked them for money, and they gave it to me!

Exactly. This would have been a very stressfull situation, especialy with the news about someone being killed by walmart security just a few days ago. It's clear LadyBonita asked to leave, and they said "no" so it's not simply 'telling her not to leave and she didn't".
posted by delmoi at 1:36 AM on August 16, 2005


LadyBonita, I don't know the state of newspapers where you are but this is definitely a story if you find a reporter who can realize it. Try the local TV too. Don't knock yourself out, but a few phone calls may be worth it.
To those who say it's a lot of fuss over nothing, I would argue that that supermarket fire was horrific and big corporations like walmart need to put procedures in place for this kind of power failure scenario to make sure such something like that never happens here. The only way they are going to do anything is under threat of lawsuit or bad press.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:17 AM on August 16, 2005


LadyBonita, if you do consult an attorney and come up with a prepared "You have to let me out right now" statement, I'd appreciate if you posted it here...
posted by nickmark at 11:11 AM on August 16, 2005


As someone who has been in charge of a large retail establishment during several power failures, my main goal is to get people out of the store as quickly as possible. However, the reason I know that is because I have been through several power failures.

It sounds like you were dealing with people who had little or no experience with this type of situation, and had no idea what to do. During such times, people don't always make the best decisions. Although you were traumatized, I say cut them some slack. They are just regular working people trying to make it through the day like you and me.
posted by krisptoria at 12:07 PM on August 16, 2005


I can't tell you about Wal-Mart's, but I can explain Target's policy for you.

If there was a tornado or storm of some sort, we gather the 'guests'/customers in the back of the store. We cannot force them to stay there, but we recommend it, for safety.

If, for example, you set off the door alarm while you leave, you don't have to stick around. If you run for it, there's really nothing Target can do, except probably check the video of your shopping excursion and try and get your license plate. Since Target's guards aren't actual police officers, it is illegal for them to detain you, against your will.
posted by graventy at 9:37 PM on August 19, 2005


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