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THOMAS v. E.J. KORVETTE

July 6, 1971

Lawrence B. THOMAS
v.
E.J. KORVETTE, INC.


Fullam, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: FULLAM

FULLAM, District Judge.

 The plaintiff was employed as security manager of the King of Prussia store of the defendant when, on November 12, 1965, the defendant caused him to be arrested and prosecuted on a charge of larceny by employee. This criminal charge was later dismissed at a Justice of the Peace hearing, and the present action for false arrest, malicious prosecution and defamation of character followed.

 Liability issues were tried first. The jury expressly found that there was no probable cause for plaintiff's arrest and prosecution, that the defendant was motivated by malice, and that certain disputed defamatory statements were made. Additional evidence was then presented on the damage issues, and the jury awarded compensatory damages in the sum of $250,000, and punitive damages in the sum of $500,000, making a total award of $750,000. The defendant has moved for judgment n.o.v. and for a new trial.

 Plaintiff's evidence was substantially as follows: after serving as a police officer for fifteen years with a distinguished record, he was employed by the defendant as a security officer and later, on the basis of merit, was promoted to the position of security manager of the King of Prussia store. On November 12, 1965, at about 11:30 a.m., he went to the toy department to obtain a certain "getaway chase" game for his child's forthcoming birthday. He had previously been advised that a shipment of these games was anticipated shortly, and he therefore inquired of the manager of the toy department. The manager went to a backroom and obtained one of the games, and handed it to the plaintiff. As the plaintiff was on his way toward the cash register in the toy department, where he intended to pay for his purchase, he spotted a woman who had previously been identified to him as a suspected shoplifter, and determined to follow her. His pursuit of the suspected shoplifter led him to the vicinity of the front door of the store. The plaintiff's automobile happened to be parked nearby, so, as a matter of convenience, he put his package in the trunk of his car, and returned to the interior of the store. Thereafter, his attention was diverted by reason of other pressing matters, and he forgot about the game until about 2:30 p.m., when he returned to the toy department, made another purchase, advised a cashier of his former purchase, and paid for both articles at the same time, whereupon he took his second purchase out to his automobile and placed it in the trunk on top of the former purchase. At that time, the sales slip for both purchases was still attached to the second purchase by a gummed tape.

 It appears that a Mr. Brown, assistant manager of the store, had observed the plaintiff taking a package out through the front door and placing it in his automobile. He called the matter to the attention of his superiors, and, ultimately, the security manager of one of the defendant's other stores was called in to investigate. Plaintiff was called into the security office at about 3:30 or 4 o'clock that afternoon and confronted with the accusation of Mr. Brown. He readily agreed that he had placed the packages in his car, but claimed that they were paid for. He was escorted to his automobile, and the packages were removed, but no sales slip was then attached, and he was unable to substantiate his purchase by means of a sales slip. The packages were then "confiscated" and the investigation continued inside the store.

 Plaintiff testified that he identified the cashier to whom he had made payment for the purchases; she was interviewed and corroborated his statement. Nevertheless, because the sales slip could not be produced, plaintiff's explanation was not accepted. He thereupon became angry and resigned his position. The police were called, and he was placed under arrest.

 The matter was scheduled for a preliminary hearing six days later, on November 18, 1965. In the meantime, plaintiff testified he had found the missing sales slip in the trunk of his car, in the well which held the spare tire. (The sales slip does not precisely correspond to the correct pricing of the two games; plaintiff contends that the cashier must have erred in ringing up the sale.) Plaintiff did not produce the sales slip or advise the defendant's representatives of its existence until some time during the preliminary hearing on November 18, 1965. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Justice of the Peace dismissed the charges, but ordered the plaintiff to pay the costs.

 There was evidence (disputed) that during the interval between plaintiff's arrest and the preliminary hearing, Mr. Smith, the security agent investigating the matter, told at least one of the cashiers that the plaintiff had "over a thousand dollars worth of toys." There was also evidence that the defendant, during the same interval, circulated to all of its store security managers a notice advising them of plaintiff's arrest, in rather extravagant terms; however, the jury expressly found that the defendant did not abuse its privilege on this occasion.

 Plaintiff testified that, since his arrest, he has been utterly unable to obtain employment in the security field. He obtained employment as a salesman of cosmetics, but, while engaged in this occupation, was asked to leave one of the defendant's stores, on the ground that he was a "security risk." In February of 1969, a prospective employer, checking with the defendant for references, was told: "If you want a thief working for you, go ahead."

 As can be seen from the foregoing recitation, the case involved many issues:

 (1) Whether there was probable cause for the original arrest;

 (2) Whether there was probable cause for continuing to press the prosecution at the Magistrate's ...


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