False Imprisonment Alleged When Patient Is Detained with Suspicious Rx

Author: Larry M. Simonsmeier, JD, RPh

Issue of the Case: A Louisiana appellate court was asked whether a patient had a cause of action against a pharmacy when she was detained for the police after presenting a suspicious prescription that was later determined to be valid.

Facts of the Case:

Jane Doe, complaining of pain associated with an abscessed tooth, called her oral surgeon late on a Saturday afternoon to obtain a prescription to relieve the pain. The physician called the defendant pharmacy and ordered Darvon Compound 65. After the pharmacist took the order and filled the prescription, he decided to verify it.

The pharmacist attempted to reach the oral surgeon twice with no success. Finally, he spoke with the physician's answering service and discovered that the physician was not on call that weekend. The pharmacist was connected to the oral surgeon's partner, who said it was unlikely that the other doctor had called in the order. The partner explained that their office had a policy that only the on-call doctor would phone in prescriptions. All of this increased the pharmacist's suspicions, so he called the state police drug investigation unit.

When Jane Doe arrived to pick up her prescription, she was told it would take a few minutes and was asked to wait. Doe waited a short time and checked again. She was again told it would take a few more minutes. While waiting, Doe roamed freely around the store. She did some shopping. The pharmacist, or any store employee, did not attempt to physically detain her. Nor was she told that she could not leave the store.

When the police arrived, the pharmacist identified Doe and explained to them why he was suspicious of her activities. The pharmacist had no further contact with the plaintiff. The police conducted a brief investigation and placed Doe under arrest, handcuffed her, and transported her to jail, where she was booked. Later that evening, a sheriff's deputy contacted the prescriber, who verified the prescription. Doe was then released. Doe sued the pharmacist, the pharmacy, the police officers, and the state of Louisiana.

The Court's Ruling:

Following a nonjury trial, the defendants were found responsible for $40,000 in damages, but the verdict was reduced to $20,000 because the parties had agreed before trial to limit damages to that amount. The pharmacist and pharmacy were assessed 75% of the fault, and the police and the state were found responsible for 25%. Upon appeal, the verdict was overturned, and judgment was rendered in favor of the pharmacy and the pharmacist.

The Court's Reasoning:

The trial court judge was not explicit in his ruling but suggested that he based his decision on the legal theories of false imprisonment and the intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

An essential element of the tort of false imprisonment is the detention of a person. The court found that this did not occur in this case. There was no evidence that the pharmacist or any other employee detained Doe, restricted her movement in the store, or advised her that she could not leave. Doe testified that at one point she had grown so tired of waiting that she nearly left the store. The police conducted their own investigation and did not rely on the pharmacist's suspicions, so false imprisonment was not a valid theory of recovery against either the pharmacist or the pharmacy.

The court further found that the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress did not apply because essential elements were not present. To be successful when raising such a claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's conduct was extreme and outrageous. To the contrary, the behavior of the pharmacist was not "outrageous,"nor was it extreme. Without such behavior, his acts could not be deemed intentional.

In light of the conversation with the oral surgeon's partner and the other facts available to him at the time, the pharmacist was found to have acted logically. Having found that the pharmacist's actions were logical, it followed that he was "reasonable."Without an element of unreasonableness, there could be no negligence either. All the legal theories against the pharmacist and the pharmacy failed. The judgment was reversed.

Larry M. Simonsmeier is Emeritus Professor of Pharmacy Law at Washington State University College of Pharmacy.