Jury finds Hecht's not liable in civil suit

Teen sued after security accused him of shoplifting

January 13, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Hecht's is not liable for damages for actions by its security guards in handcuffing a Dundalk teen-ager they erroneously believed had shoplifted a shirt from its White Marsh Mall department store, a federal jury in Baltimore has decided.

The jury of six women and two men deliberated 45 minutes Tuesday before returning a verdict in favor of May Department Stores, Hecht's parent company, in William M. Stratton Jr.'s $1 million civil suit against the company, stemming from an incident two years ago.

Stratton, who was 18 at the time and on a shopping trip with two friends, was detained as he was leaving the store by two security guards who believed he had stolen a plaid Nautica shirt he was wearing under a fleece jacket, according to testimony in the two-day trial before U.S. District Senior Judge Alexander Harvey II.

Stratton had received the shirt as a birthday gift a few days earlier, and a company security official apologized to the youth and his mother two days after he was detained, according to testimony.

Stratton had tried on a similar plaid shirt, which a friend had bought for him, the night he was handcuffed. The security guard who handcuffed the youth testified that she believed the shirt he was wearing was the same one he took into the store's dressing room.

The jury foreman, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said after the verdict that the jurors quickly concluded that the security officers had "probable cause" to stop Stratton.

Under Maryland law, retailers cannot be held civilly liable for damages such as defamation or false imprisonment if they have a reasonable belief that shoplifting has occurred.

Edward C. Bacon, Hecht's attorney, declined to comment on the case other than to say, "You heard the verdict."

Edward J. Connor, Stratton's attorney, said, "Every verdict sends a message, and I don't think it's a very good message being sent. I expect to see more cases like this in the future, and I expect to keep fighting them."

Connor was a plaintiffs' attorney in a celebrated case involving three youths falsely accused of shoplifting at an Eddie Bauer warehouse sale in Prince George's County in 1995. A jury awarded the youths $1 million, which the company appealed. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum before the appeal could be heard.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Connor did not mention the $1 million in damages sought, but asked jurors for a "full award."

"Is it reasonable to arrest somebody because they're wearing the same brand of shirt they're buying?" he asked.

Bacon responded that Hecht's never sought to file any criminal charges against Stratton, and said the youth had suffered no physical injury during his detention.

"The making of a mistake does not make Hecht's legally responsible to Mr. Stratton," he said.

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