In an action for false imprisonment, an injured person alleges that s/he was intentionally held or confined for some period of time by the defendant. There are three remedies for false imprisonment. They are damages, habeas corpus, and self help. Being a tort, the basic remedy for false imprisonment is an action for damages. An action for damages can be based on physical or mental suffering; loss of reputation; or malicious intent on behalf of the defendant. When a person is unlawfully confined, s/he can be released from such confinement by the writ of habeas corpus. A person can also use reasonable force in order to escape from the confinement.
Action for damages in false imprisonment flows from the unlawful detention. A plaintiff who has suffered injuries can be compensated for:
- physical injuries;
- mental suffering;
- loss of earnings;
- injury to the reputation;
- reasonable and necessary expenses incurred, like attorneys’ fees; and
- deprivation of any right caused by the loss of liberty.
The scope of damages recoverable is much more than what is already suffered. The general rule is that, in an action for personal torts, future damages to an injured person are an element of recovery. However, there must be reasonable certainty that action will result in false imprisonment. Only those damages found to be a natural result of false imprisonment are recoverable. Moreover, the fact that no physical injury was inflicted on one complaining of false imprisonment is not a ground for denying the recovery of reasonable compensation for mental suffering. Humiliation, fright, and shame are elements considered in assessing the mental suffering.
In an action for false imprisonment, a plaintiff can demand:
- Nominal or compensatory Damages;
- Punitive or exemplary damages; or
- Aggravated damages.
The general rule in personal tort actions is that the plaintiff is entitled to recover such a sum which will be a fair and just compensation for the injuries sustained. The mere unlawful detention constitutes the basis for the recovery of at least nominal damages[i]. The damages recoverable must be susceptible of ascertainment with a reasonable degree of certainty. Damages for false imprisonment which are merely speculative are not recoverable.
However, an award of nominal damages will be insufficient and erroneous where the facts proven indicate a right to greater damages[ii]. Generally, ill will and malice are not elements of the tort. When ill will and malice are proven in false imprisonment, punitive damages can be awarded in addition to compensatory damages or nominal damages. Exemplary or punitive damages are awarded as compensation and punishment. They are awarded for an imprisonment effected recklessly, oppressively, insultingly, and maliciously with a design to oppress and injure the plaintiff. Punitive damages are awarded in cases where the defendant’s actions are indifferent to the rights of others or in intentional violation of his/her rights. Additionally, when there is abuse of power by the state, exemplary damages are awarded. Punitive damages are awarded as a means of deterring defendants from such future conduct. Aggravated damages can be awarded in cases where imprisonment in itself is offensive.
Exemplary damages will not be allowed:
- in the absence of actual damage sustained by plaintiff;
- where the false imprisonment was brought about in good faith, without malice in fact or in law; or
- where there is no element of wantonness or oppression.
When a jury makes an honest mistake as to the nature and extent of damages, normally a new trial is not required. Usually, court will order a remittitur. After reviewing the evidence in support of the jury’s verdict, when the court finds that the jury’s verdict is excessive, the court will order a remittitur. The award considered for review must exceed fair and reasonable compensation. A remittitur is an order by the court to remit a portion of the award. The remedy of a remittitur is designed to cure an award of damages that is grossly excessive without the necessity of a new trial or an appeal[iii].
[i] Marshall v. District of Columbia, 391 A.2d 1374, 1380 (D.C. 1978).
[ii] Atkins v. New York City, 143 F.3d 100, 103 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1998).
[iii] Armon v. Griggs, 60 S.W.3d 37, 40 (Mo. Ct. App. 2001).