Whittaker v. Sandford

Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, 1912.

110 Me. 77, 85 A. 399.

Prosser, 45-47.


Facts: The plaintiff was a member of a cult outside the U.S. but decided to quit and come back to the U.S.  The defendant, who was the cult leader, offered the plaintiff and her children passage back to the U.S. on his yacht.  She was assured that she would not be detained on the yacht, but when they arrived in port in the U.S., the defendant did not let her take a boat to shore and tried to persuade her to rejoin the cult.  She was not allowed to leave the yacht alone.  After a month, she escaped and filed a suit for false imprisonment and won damages.


Procedural Posture: The defendant appealed on the basis that the jury instructions given at trial were unlawful.


Issue: Was the plaintiff physically restrained?


Rule: The plaintiff must be restrained by the defendant physically and unlawfully in order for false imprisonment to lie.


Analysis: To argue that the jury found for the plaintiff correctly, the court makes an analogy between being held on the yacht and being held in a locked room.  If I am unlawfully locked in a room without access to a key, then I have been falsely imprisoned.  Likewise, if I am kept on a yacht without access to a rowboat, I have been falsely imprisoned.


Conclusion: The court upheld the lower court’s verdict.


Notes and Questions


1.     This situation meets the criteria for false imprisonment because the woman cannot escape the car without the risk of serious injury.

2.     This may explain lighted “exit” signs in all public buildings from a common law if not a statutory standpoint.

3.     This is admittedly problematic.  It is not false imprisonment if you are committed to a mental health institution or if you are ordered by a court to enter a drug rehabilitation program.  If you are really “brainwashed” and are in the cult against your will, it would seem that “deprogramming” ought to be legal because it’s what you would want for yourself if you were in your right mind.  However, you must question whether there is such a thing as brainwashing and what the First Amendment implications of a practice like deprogramming.

4.     This case would have strong policy implications; the interests of the plaintiff in this case would have to be weighed against those of the other passengers both on the plane and those waiting for that plane to arrive as a connecting flight.  Unless there was some kind of grave emergency, it doesn’t seem like keeping passengers on the plane would be unlawful.


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