False Imprisonment

False imprisonment, sometimes called false arrest, is a tort that protects an individual’s freedom from improper restraint and includes more than simple incarceration. An individual can be wrongfully confined when in an open street, traveling in an automobile, or even confined in an entire city. Generally, there can be no tort of false imprisonment unless a defendant intends to cause a plaintiff’s confinement. This entry briefly describes the law and provides examples of education-related cases.

According to the Restatement (Second) of Torts, an action for false imprisonment requires that a plaintiff be aware of the wrongful confinement at the time it occurs. Damages can include compensation for loss of a plaintiff’s time, physical discomfort, mental distress, and humiliation. The wrongful restraint may be caused by the placement of physical barriers, by a threat of force, or by the defendant’s conduct or words, which would cause a person to reasonably submit to wrongful restraint due to a fear of force, even though no force is used or explicitly threatened.

A Westlaw search conducted in early 2007 produced slightly less than 200 cases that involved schools and contained the term “false imprisonment.” About three quarters of these cases were filed since 1990. Further, claims of false imprisonment were often included as one of many allegations of tortuous wrongdoing by plaintiffs. In other words, few cases involving schools were focused solely on the tort of false imprisonment.

Cases in which school boards or their employees were sued for false imprisonment illustrate the elements that are necessary for a plaintiff to maintain a cause of action. For example, in Ette v. Linn-Mar Community School District (2002), an Iowa school board was sued under a variety of theories, including false imprisonment, after school authorities sent a ninth grade student home alone by bus during an outof- state band trip to San Antonio, Texas. After the student was discovered in possession of cigarettes in violation of school rules, a trip director put him on a Greyhound bus in San Antonio for a 30-hour trip home to Iowa. The Supreme Court of Iowa upheld dismissal of the student’s false imprisonment claim, pointing out that he consented to boarding the bus and had not been confined against his will.

Likewise, in Daniels v. Lutz (2005), a federal court in Arkansas rejected a student’s false imprisonment claim against a teacher who allegedly hit him and grabbed him to prevent him from leaving a classroom. The court allowed the student’s battery claim to proceed but dismissed the false imprisonment claim on a motion for summary judgment. The court noted that although the teacher attempted to hold the student to get him to stay in the classroom, the student broke free. The student then boarded a school bus and arrived home as usual. Insofar as it was undisputed that the student was not detained, the court dismissed the false imprisonment claim.

In School Board of Miami-Dade County v. Trujillo (2005), an appellate court in Florida rejected a false imprisonment claim against a school board and bus driver that arose from a child’s overlong confinement on a school bus, ruling that there was no evidence that school employees intended to confine the student against his will. On the first day of school, a bus driver employed by the school board picked up the plaintiffs’ 4-year-old son, a special needs student, about an hour later than his scheduled pick-up time. While attempting to pick up other students, the bus driver was delayed, and the child arrived at school about four hours late. The plaintiffs alleged that the child arrived at school dehydrated and that he subsequently had nightmares and developed a fear of school buses.

Prior to trial, the trial judge granted the board’s motion for summary judgment on the parents’ false imprisonment claim but allowed their negligence count to be heard by a jury. On further review, an appellate court upheld the dismissal of the parents’ false imprisonment claim and reversed the jury’s negligence verdict. There was no evidence, the court ruled, that the board or its employees intended to confine the child, had knowledge that confinement would result, or that he was prevented from leaving the bus or held against his will. Rather, the court maintained that the evidence showed that the bus driver picked the child up at his home and simply managed to get lost. The incident hardly amounted to false imprisonment, the court concluded.

Another case from Florida, Escambia County School Board v. Bragg (1996), illustrates the principle that private individuals who cooperate in good faith with police do not thereby expose themselves to the tort of false imprisonment. Here a jury awarded a judgment against a school board for false arrest after school employees incorrectly identified certain equipment in a plaintiff’s possession as belonging to the high school. Based on this inaccurate report, the plaintiff was arrested by police and charged with grand theft. On further review, an appellate court reversed a judgment that had been entered on behalf of the plaintiff, reasoning that a private citizen may not be liable in tort for making an honest, good faith mistake in reporting an incident to the police. According to the court, the mere fact that a citizen’s communication with a police officer leads to a mistaken arrest does not make the citizen liable for the detention.

Richard Fossey

Further Readings

  • Keeton, W. P., Dobbs, D. B., Keeton, R. E., & Owen, D. G. (1984). Prosser & Keeton on the law of torts (5th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West. 

Legal Citations

  • Daniels v. Lutz, 407 F. Supp. 2d 1038 (E.D. Ark. 2005). 
  • Escambia County School Board v. Bragg, 680 So. 2d 571 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1996). 
  • Ette v. Linn-Mar Community School District, 656 N.W.2d 62 (Iowa 2002). 
  • Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 35–45A (1965). 
  • School Board of Miami-Dade County v. Trujillo, 906 So. 2d 1109 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005).