By Iain Gould, solicitor
Over the course of my career I have helped hundreds of people to bring claims for damages arising out of a situation in which they have been unlawfully deprived of their liberty, whether for minutes, hours or days. Many of these cases naturally involve abuse or misuse of Police powers – what is colloquially known as a ‘wrongful arrest’ but which is classed in the English Common Law as the tort of False Imprisonment, this being the detention or confinement of a person without lawful excuse. It does not depend upon a person being handcuffed or locked in a cell (or any other room) – which are perhaps the most blatant and obvious forms of imprisonment – but covers any situation in which a person is deprived of their freedom to come and go as they please, with or without the application of physical restraint. For example, verbal threats or commands which unlawfully stop a the person from leaving a place, would amount to false imprisonment.
So, although many claims for false imprisonment are against Police officers who have improperly used their power of arrest, I have also represented individuals who have suffered deprivation of their liberty in other situations – for example being detained by members of staff in a supermarket on a false accusation of shop lifting or being dragged to the door of a restaurant and thrown out by a security guard, this latter amounting to both an assault and a period of false imprisonment.
As I have said above, however, it is entirely possible for a person to commit the tort of false imprisonment against you, without actually laying a finger upon you, and that is what happened in a case which I have recently settled on behalf of a young lady from the Merseyside area who was, effectively, kidnapped by her taxi driver.
Miss JF had been out with a group of friends in Liverpool for a meal/drinks and was making her way home with two of her friends by Hackney Cab. At first the journey was entirely normal. Miss JF’s two friends were dropped off first, and then the taxi driver continued towards Miss JF’s home, where she lived with her boyfriend.
At this point, watching the taxi meter going up, Miss JF realised that she was not going to have enough to pay the full fare when they arrived at her house. Unfortunately, she had forgotten to take into account that because this was a night over the Christmas holiday period, the taxi fare was being charged at a higher rate.
Realising she was going to be approximately £4/£5 ‘short’ my client therefore used her mobile telephone to call her boyfriend (who was at home) from her seat in the back of the taxi, asking him to get some additional cash so as to meet her when the taxi arrived and pay the driver the shortfall. She then also told the taxi driver about what her intention was, although he made no reply to that.
The taxi then arrived in Miss JF’s road and pulled up a short distance away from her house. Miss JF removed her seatbelt and leant forward to pass all the money she had through to the taxi driver in the front of the cab, explaining as she did so that although she was short her boyfriend would be there within a few moments to pay the balance of the fare (for she had called him again on her mobile a second time as they were pulling into the road). The shortfall in the fare, as anticipated by Miss JF, was around £4. The total fare was around £30, the majority of which Miss JF immediately paid.
The taxi driver however, perhaps suspecting – quite wrongly – that Miss JF was about to jump out of the taxi without paying in full, reacted in a bizarre and aggressive manner, shouting “I have F____ing had enough of this!” and throwing the taxi into gear, accelerated away…
Miss JF had prior to this point made no attempt to exit the taxi but had instead sat back in her seat, looking towards her home address and had just seen her boyfriend exit the house and start to proceed towards them, when the taxi driver suddenly pulled off.
The taxi driver performed a violent u-turn and then accelerated hard along the road away from Miss JF’s home, much to the shock and horror both of herself and her boyfriend who was witnessing this.
As a result of the sudden u-turn manoeuvre Miss JF, no longer wearing her seatbelt, was thrown from her seat and landed on the floor of the taxi, banging her head and shoulder against the partition between the passenger area and the driver’s cab.
In shock and distress, JF tried to regain her seat. However, the driver then swung his taxi to the left following the bend of the road, and then to the right as he pulled out onto another road and JF was jolted about on the floor of the taxi and was unable to pull herself back up into her seat. She was having to use her hands to support herself in an awkward sitting position on the floor of the taxi and she told me that it now felt like the driver was doing about 60 miles an hour as he raced along the road.
The taxi driver now announced to JF that he was taking her to the police station – although she had no idea of knowing whether this was true or not. She implored the driver numerous times to slow down, but was ignored, and in panic used her mobile to call her boyfriend.
Her boyfriend answered his mobile and confirmed that he was now in his own car following the taxi.
Approximately 5 minutes later the taxi driver arrived at the local police station, and it was only as he slowed down on pulling into the car park that Miss JF was finally able to regain her seat in the back of the taxi. She was in a state of total shock and watched as her boyfriend’s car also pulled up and her boyfriend got out to confront the taxi driver who had now exited his vehicle.
Two Police officers then approached my client’s boyfriend and the taxi driver as they were arguing and after quickly ascertaining the brief facts as to what had happened, ordered everybody to sort this out between themselves, as the Police had ‘better things to do’.
In order to see an end to this very distressing incident as quickly as possible, Miss JF’s boyfriend then gave money to the taxi driver (more in fact that he was entitled to), assisted JF out of the taxi and drove her home.
Falsely Imprisoned by a Taxi Driver
The taxi driver had negligently inflicted injury upon my client by the manner of his driving, causing her to be thrown from her seat, and thrown about on the floor of the taxi sustaining injury – fortunately her injuries were bruises rather than broken bones, and therefore not too serious, but the driver had also subjected her to a period of False Imprisonment from the moment he sped off from outside her home until she was released from his taxi at the police station. The biggest effect which this incident had upon JF was, of course, not physical but emotional.
Miss JF was a young woman, on her own, being driven away at speed by a stranger who had locked the doors of his taxi and was, to all intents and purposes, kidnapping her. His actions were entirely unlawful, and Miss JF was entirely right to seek legal advice, when she consulted my firm.
When Miss J F instructed my firm she did not know that she would be able to bring a claim for false imprisonment and instead thought that she could only claim for the injuries she had sustained by being thrown about in the back of the taxi as a result of the driver’s violent u-turn and speeding.
One of my colleagues identified, however, that this was far more than just an accident claim arising out of negligent driving, and brought the file to my attention – because as well as compensation for her injuries Miss J F could also bring a claim for the very deliberate, albeit thankfully short, period of time in which she was held prisoner in the back of the taxi, being driven away to an unknown destination against her will.
This meant that on top of the basic damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity which Miss J F was entitled to in regards to her injuries (which are simply assessed in the same way they would be if those injuries had been sustained in a routine, accidental collision between two vehicles) Miss J F was also entitled to damages for false imprisonment.
The governing guidelines when assessing damages in false imprisonment claims were set by the Court of Appeal in the case of Thompson and Hsu v the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis  QB 498,515 as follows:-
“In a straight forward case of wrongful arrest and false imprisonment, the starting point is likely to be about £500 for the first hour during which the Plaintiff has been deprived of his or her liberties. After the first hour, an additional sum is to be awarded, but that sum should be on a reducing scale so as to keep the damages proportionate with those payable and personal injury cases and because the Plaintiff is entitled to have higher rate of compensation for the initial shock of being arrested. As a guideline, we consider, for example, that a Plaintiff that has been wrongfully kept in custody for 24 hours should for this alone normally be regarded as entitled to an award from about £3,000. Subsequent days, the daily rate would be on a progressively reducing scale”.
The above figures must, of course, be updated by inflation, and would therefore now equate to around £940 for the first hour and £5,640 for 24 hours detention.
This Case Law is applicable to all incidents of false imprisonment and it is not relevant in that regard whether the imprisonment was at the hands of the Police or a ‘rogue’ taxi driver (as in this case). The ‘sliding scale’ set by the Court of Appeal means that the first hour, and indeed the first few minutes, of any period of false imprisonment are worth more than later minutes/hours on a reducing basis, because it is at the beginning of the false imprisonment that the person experiences the severe shock of the realisation of the deprivation of their liberty. Even so, Miss J F’s period of false imprisonment was for only around 5 minutes so the actual value of her false imprisonment claim, taking into account the Court of Appeal guidelines and allowing for inflation, was arguably not more than £200.
However, there was another very good reason to pursue the false imprisonment claim, despite the fact that on the face of it, it would only increase my client’s award of damages by a couple of hundred pounds …
The Claim for Aggravated Damages
Aggravated damages are awarded where there are special features which would result in a person not receiving sufficient compensation, if the award were restricted to basic damages only. Lord Woolf in the case of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v Thompson and Hsu  2 All ER 762 CA described aggravating features as follows:-
“Humiliating circumstances at the time of arrest or any conduct of those responsible in the arrest or the prosecution which shows that they had paid in a high handed, insulting, malicious or oppressive manner either in relation to the arrest or imprisonment or in conducting the prosecution. Aggravating features can also include the way litigation and trial are conducted”.
Whilst Lord Woolf was making those comments in the context of a claim for false imprisonment against the police, they of course equally apply to claims for false imprisonment against ‘ordinary’ members of the public, including the taxi driver in this case, whose conduct towards Miss J F was undoubtedly oppressive, degrading, humiliating and very distressing.
Aggravated damages cannot be awarded in personal cases which only involve a negligent act or omission (i.e accident claims), but can and frequently are awarded in cases involving deliberate False Imprisonment.
The Court of Appeal in the case of Thompson and Hsu recommended that if aggravated damages were appropriate the minimum award should be not less than £1,000 (now around £1700 once updated for inflation) whilst the maximum award could be twice as much as basic damages.
It was therefore undoubtedly in Miss J F’s interest to pursue a claim for false imprisonment, because although the basic damages awarded for the short period of time for which she was actually imprisoned (around 5 minutes) were likely to be modest, the fact that false imprisonment could be proved then opened the door for her to receive an additional award of aggravated damages, more properly reflecting the seriousness of the Defendant’s wrong doing towards her.
I have to say that I think a lot of practitioners, who do not have my specialist experience of pursuing claims against the Police, might have sadly overlooked Miss J F’s entitlement to damages for false imprisonment (and hence aggravated damages) and simply treated this as a mere claim for negligently inflicted injuries only.
I presented Miss J F’s claim for both personal injury and false imprisonment to the taxi driver’s solicitors by way of written letter, and then, when they failed to admit liability for any aspect of the claim, commenced County Court proceedings against the taxi driver.
Although his solicitors quickly filed a very short Defence denying any wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of their client (although failing to advance any explanation at all as to what his justification was in thinking he could drive off with a person imprisoned in the back of his taxi) they quickly started to make offers of settlement to my client.
The solicitors initial offer to my client on behalf of the taxi driver was £5,000 damages, which I had no hesitation in advising her to reject.
This might, indeed, have been an appropriate settlement if her claim was confined to the injuries which she sustained only, as her physical aches and pains had lasted for a few months only, but taking into account the claims for false imprisonment and aggravated damages I knew her claim was worth considerably more than that.
I therefore negotiated further with the taxi driver’s solicitors and within 4 weeks of the initial offer had got the Defendant’s solicitors to increase their offer of settlement first to £7,100, then £9,100 and finally £10,000, which was acceptable to my client.
By correctly identifying and pursuing the claim for false imprisonment (and hence opening the door to an award of aggravated damages not recoverable in ordinary personal injury claims) we had doubled the amount of compensation achievable by Miss J F, a very satisfactory result which I hope goes some way to helping her to put this unpleasant incident behind her.
The taxi driver’s motivations remain, of course, ultimately unknown, although it seems likely that he thought he was entitled to take the law into his own hands when he suspected (albeit without due cause) that my client was trying to ‘short change’ him for the journey he had undertaken.
However I was able to use my specialist knowledge of claims for false imprisonment to make the law work at its best for my client, and put her in the driving seat.