The opinion of the court was delivered by: SNYDER
The Defendant, The May Department Stores Company, has moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial in this action for slander and false imprisonment
growing out of the actions of its security officers and other employees when the Plaintiff, an Assistant Manager in the Children's Wear Department, was asked to resign after being accused of stealing from the Defendant's Ford-Steuben Mall Kaufmann Store. The jury, after six days of trial, answered special interrogatories and awarded Miss Thomas $12,000.00 general and $20,000.00 punitive damages in the slander action, and $1,003.00 general and $10,000.00 punitive damages in the false imprisonment action.
Giving the Plaintiff the benefit of all favorable inferences, the jury could have found the following:
Miss Thomas began work at the store in January of 1974, stocking shelves even before it was opened. She worked regularly and received incremental increases. She was promoted in early 1975 to Assistant Manager in the Children's Wear Department and as such her duties were to control inventory (called "blue-pencil"), open and close the cash registers, mark items for special sales, and generally take charge of the Department, for the Manager in name had two departments and rarely was involved in this Department. She was also expected to act as a regular sales clerk.
Beginning in May of 1975, she became active in union organizing at the store and continued her activities until the time of her "resignation" by way of attending meetings and inducing other employees to sign authorization cards for union representation.
On November 8, 1975, about 4:30 P.M., she was suddenly asked to go to the Security Office and was there accused of violating company rules and of stealing from the store. The Security Officer read her a warning concerning her rights which read:
"You must understand your rights before you ask any question. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in court, or other proceedings. You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we question you and to have him with you during questioning. If you decide to answer questions now without a lawyer present, you will still have the right to stop the questioning at any time. You also have the right to stop the questioning at any time until you talk to a lawyer."
She signed a "Consent to Speak" which included the statement that no promises or threats had been made to her and no pressure or coercion of any kind had been used against her. After a considerable interview, she signed a statement that:
"Today, Friday, November 28, 1975, I failed to record a sale, and I took the money and placed it on my person. I know what I did was wrong and dishonest and that I could be prosecuted in Criminal Court for my actions. My only explanation for what I did was that I was trying to get something for nothing. Prior to making this statement I was advised of my constitutional rights and have further acknowledged these rights by reading and signing a waiver and consent to speak statement. I have read the foregoing statement and it is true and correct to the best of my knowledge."
As will be discussed more in detail, Miss Thomas contended that this statement was, in fact, coerced as the Security Officer gave her the alternative of (1) signing the statement and resigning, or (2) leaving the store publicly in the custody of police officers. In any event, she returned to the store about two hours later with her irate father, mother, sister and boyfriend, Bob Harlan. In response to questions by the father, the Security Officer explained that Miss Thomas had been caught stealing from the company and violating the company rules and had admitted that she had. The father supported his daughter and the Security Officer denied relief with the result that this suit was filed.
The Shoppers consulted on this matter and a short time later Shopper Barbara Walsh interrupted a purchase being made by Shopper Pyrett and Pyrett observed Miss Thomas put $4.16 into a small jewelry box outside the cash register. Shopper Hickey said she then saw Miss Thomas pick up both the purse (containing the $3.12) and the jewelry box (containing the $4.16) and leave the floor with a sandy haired boy, apparently going on her coffee break. The Shoppers did not keep a surveillance on Miss Thomas, but went to the Security Office to speak with Mr. Wymar, and another "clip" was set up.
This time, Shopper Meeder interrupted a purchase being made by Shopper Hickey and gave Miss Thomas $5.20 for her purchase which Miss Thomas put on (not in) the cash register and then she went back to the stockroom. Shopper Hickey saw another clerk pick up the money and take it to Miss Thomas in the stockroom. This incident was reported to Security Officer Wymar who, after consultation with the Administrator of Security in the Pittsburgh Store, called Miss Thomas to the Security Office and a search was conducted. The $3.12 in marked money was found in her purse. Miss Thomas contended that she had gotten the three ...