Appellate Court Denies Summary Judgment in Store’s Favor in Shoplifter Detention Case

According to the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, a merchant may use reasonable force to detain a suspected shoplifter for questioning or arrest for up to an hour. La. Code Crim. P. Art. 215(A)(1). A merchant who acts under this provision is entitled to immunity from any civil actions arising out of the detention, provided he can show that he had reasonable cause to believe that the detained person committed theft; he did not use unreasonable force; the detention occurred on the store premises; and the detention did not last longer than 60 minutes. Freeman v. Kar Way, Inc.

The issue of the merchant’s reasonableness was at the center of the recent case of Rhymes v. Winn-Dixie Louisiana, Inc. On the morning of December 24, 2007, Thomas Rhymes visited the Winn-Dixie grocery store in Abbeville to purchase some cough syrup. While shopping, Rhymes’s blood sugar began to drop and he felt dizzy and weak. He slipped the cough syrup into his jacket pocket, grabbed several bags of honey buns, and made his way toward the checkout. A store manager intercepted Rhymes and demanded the products from his jacket pockets. The manager then told Rhymes to leave the premises but a moment later told him to stay, though Rhymes ignored this request and continued toward the door. The manager grabbed Rhymes by the neck and twisted his left arm behind his back. The manager attempted to hit Rhymes as they made their way to the back office but was stopped, mid-swing, by another store employee. When the police arrived, a different manager advised the officer to release Rhymes as the store did not wish to press charges. Rhymes filed suit for physical and mental injuries resulting from the incident. Winn-Dixie answered, denying that Rhymes was injured and asserting the merchant’s detention privilege under the Louisiana Code. Winn-Dixie also filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on May 20, 2010. Rhymes appealed.

The Third Circuit began its review with the well-established principle that summary judgment is appropriate only when there is “no genuine issue of material fact, and that the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Rhymes’s argument on appeal was that a question of material fact “regarding whether the force used by the manager was reasonable” existed. Indeed, Rhymes argued that the store manager’s actions were “beyond unreasonable.” The court likened the analysis under the merchant statute to determining whether the force used by police officers in arresting criminal offenders is reasonable, for which the Louisiana Supreme Court has held:

“Whether the force used is reasonable depends upon the totality of the facts and circumstances in each case. A court must evaluate the officers’ actions against those of ordinary, prudent, and reasonable men placed in the same position as the officers and with the same knowledge as the officers.” Kyle v. City of New Orleans.

In other words, the analysis very much turns on the specific facts of the incident. Here, the court had only Rhymes’s deposition testimony to evaluate, as the store did not offer the manager’s deposition or any other evidence. Accordingly, the court found that there were “questions of material fact as to whether the store manager’s actions in grabbing Mr. Rhymes by the neck and wrapping his arm behind his back constituted reasonable force under the circumstances of this case.” The judgment of the trial court was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Although summary judgment can be a winning strategy for either party in litigation, its applicability is limited to the cases where “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to material fact.” Typically, when an analysis of reasonableness is required, the facts of the case will be of critical importance and summary judgment inapplicable. The court’s action here indicates that a fact-intensive analysis is needed by the trial court on remand.

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