Whittaker v. Sandford – Case Brief

Whittaker v. Sandford, Sup. Jud. Ct of Maine, 110 Me. 77, 85 A. 399 (1912).

Case Summary

Facts: Whittaker (P) was a member of a sect colony and was residing at a mission outpost in Jaffa, Syria. She decided to leave the sect and return to Maine. Sandford (D), the leader of the sect, persuaded her to return with him on the sect’s yacht after promising that she would be free to leave immediately upon arrival.

Upon arrival, D detained P on his yacht for over a month and tried to persuade her to remain with the sect. P was not allowed to leave the yacht unaccompanied. P requested the use of a boat to return to shore and D refused. P sued for false imprisonment. The court instructed the jury that P must show physical restraint, but need not show that actual physical force had been used. The jury returned a verdict in favor of P. D appealed an order denying his motion for a new trial based on error in the jury instructions.

Issue: Can an action for false imprisonment lie if: 1) a party merely prevents a plaintiff from leaving a confined area or fails to honor a promise to release a party, or 2) a party has a duty to act and that party’s refusal to do that act results in confinement?

Holding and Rule: 1) Yes. False imprisonment requires that a person be physically prevented from leaving but actual physical force is not necessary. 2) Yes. An action for false imprisonment can lie where a party has a duty to act and that party’s refusal to do that act results in confinement. P’s promise implied a duty for D to supply P with the means to leave the yacht.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Notes: An intentional tort may be based on either an affirmative act, or a party’s failure to act when the party has a duty and the capacity and ability to act.

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