Cadillac store loses bid to appeal award in spot delivery case

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A Louisiana dealership that brought the police into a spot delivery dispute with a customer has lost its bid to appeal her $15,600 award for false imprisonment.

The award against Supreme Chevrolet-Cadillac of Plaquemine in Plaquemine, La., wasn’t excessive, the Louisiana Court of Appeal ruled.

Alma Johnson went to Supreme, made a $500 down payment on a 2005 Cadillac SRX and executed sales documents in January 2011. She received the keys to the Cadillac and left the dealership in what Supreme called a “courtesy delivery,” according to the decision. At the time, she had a Dodge Stratus that had been totaled in an accident.

According to the decision, Johnson believed the Cadillac was hers.

But Supreme maintains its salesman told her she needed to pay off the loan on the Stratus before a lender would finance the SRX. Supreme let her take the car “as a gesture of good faith” on the assumption she would pay off the lien, its lawyer, Kevin Larmann of Metairie, La., said.

A few days after taking the Cadillac, Johnson returned to the dealership for an inspection sticker, without incident. Two weeks later she went back for repairs, again without incident. She made a payment to the finance company, which she believed to be the first monthly payment on her note, according to the decision.

But in mid-March, when she asked the dealership about her license plate, she was told to return the vehicle. She didn’t do so. The salesman contacted the local police department, and the police told her to return the vehicle to the dealership within two hours.

Again, Johnson didn’t do so.

Police arrested her, placed her in a holding cell and then took to her jail, where she stayed overnight before being released. The charges were later dropped.

She sued for mental anguish resulting from false imprisonment and for reimbursement of her down payment and the first monthly payment. The dealership denied liability.

At a nonjury trial, a judge ruled that Johnson had been falsely imprisoned because of the dealership’s actions and awarded her $15,000 in damages and $600 in reimbursement.

The appeals panel, in a 2-1 majority decision by Judge Page McClendon, rejected the dealership’s argument that it should be liable for no more than $5,000 for wrongful imprisonment because Johnson had been in custody for only 16 hours.

“She was forced to spend the night in parish prison, and was released following her transfer to Plaquemine the next day,” McClendon wrote in the decision. “Although Johnson learned that her court date for the criminal trial had been dismissed, she came to court on the scheduled date ‘because I was so frightened that if I didn’t come ... I was afraid that if I didn’t come I would be picked up again under false arrest.’”

The decision continued, “At trial, Johnson was upset and crying when she had to testify about these events.”

Larmann, the dealership’s lawyer, said his client appealed because the trial judge erroneously stated that Johnson was jailed for three days, not the actual 16 hours.

And David Loeb, the dealership’s general counsel, said, “We were disappointed the court didn’t correct the arithmetic.”

There will be no further appeal, Loeb said.

One appellate judge voted to reduce the amount of damages but didn’t specify an appropriate amount.

The panel rejected Johnson’s request for damages equal to the value of the SRX based on wrongful conversion -- that is, that Supreme’s taking back the Cadillac amounted to taking Johnson’s property.

Said her lawyer, John Samaha of Baton Rouge: “My client doesn’t feel she got what she deserves” but accepts the decision and “will live with it.”

You can reach Eric Freedman at freedma5@msu.edu.

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