Bank Held Responsible for Mistaken Identification of Bank Robber

Bank of AmericaTrying to cash a $100 check at a branch of Bank of America turned out to be a nightmarish experience for Rodolfo Valladares. After a teller mistakenly identified him as a bank robber, Valladares was kicked in the head by a member of a SWAT team. His $3.3 million verdict against Bank of America was reversed on appeal. Now the Florida Supreme Court has decided that Valladares is entitled to a new trial.

Facts of the Case

Tellers at the Williams Island, Florida branch of Bank of America received an email on July 3, 2008 advising them to watch for a bank robber. A photograph accompanied the email showed a white male wearing sunglasses and a Miami Heat cap.

Later that day, Valladares entered the branch to cash a $100 check. He had the misfortune to be wearing a Miami Heat cap and sunglasses, both common items of apparel in southern Florida. Although Valladares is Hispanic and the email did not describe the bank robber as being Hispanic, a teller decided that Valladares was the robber identified in the email. She did not compare the photograph to Valladares before she jumped to that conclusion. Instead, she pushed the silent alarm as Valladares approached her desk.

Valladares handed the check and his driver’s license to the teller. The check was drawn on a Bank of America account. Nothing about Valladares’ behavior was suspicious, and bank robbers do not usually hand their identification to a teller, but the teller did not cancel the alarm. The teller testified that she immediately made up her mind that Valladares was the bank robber because of his cap and sunglasses and that her failure to change her mind was the result of panic.

The teller excused herself and reported to an assistant manager that the bank robber was at her window. At about the same time, corporate security called to verify the alarm. The assistant manager told security that the robber was present in the bank. Although he could see that Valladares was doing nothing suspicious, he took no action to verify the teller’s accusation before he confirmed the alarm with security.

The teller returned to her desk, had Valladares endorse the check, then made conversation with him to stall until the police arrived. Valladares invited her to a family barbeque. When the teller said she had a boyfriend, Valladares told her to bring him along. The fact that he did not ask for money (other than the $100 for the check he was trying to cash), made no other demands, displayed no weapons, and invited her to a party did not assuage the teller’s suspicions.

The teller then told Valladares that she couldn’t cash the check because the computers were down. Valladares could see that other tellers were working, so he asked to see the manager. The manager told Valladares that the check was written in the wrong color ink and told him he would need to leave immediately. Valladares complained about the strange and rude behavior to which he was being subjected, but he complied with the request to leave.

Several police officers arrived as Valladares approached the exit. Although Valladares did not confront or provoke them, a SWAT officer decided to “take charge.” He told everyone in the bank to lie down on the floor with arms extended. Like everyone else, Valladares did so. The officer handcuffed him, then kicked him in the head and screamed “Where’s the weapon?”

At some point after realizing that Valladares was seriously injured, the police decided to conduct an investigation. They quickly concluded that Valladares was not a bank robber. At trial, the teller admitted that she made a mistake and that she should not have pointed at Valladares when the police entered the building.

The kick to the head produced neurological damage that is a source of constant headaches and blurred vision. Valladares can no longer work and has been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Court of Appeals’ Decision

Valladares sued Bank of America for negligence, false imprisonment, and battery. A Dade County jury found that Bank of America was negligent but that it was not liable for false imprisonment or battery. The jury awarded $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $700,000 in punitive damages.

The Florida Court of Appeals decided that the negligent report of a crime to the police cannot be the basis for liability. In the absence of malice, the court held, people have a privilege to report crimes to the police and cannot be held responsible if the report turns out to be mistaken. The court therefore reversed the judgment and dismissed the case.

Supreme Court’s Decision

The Florida Supreme Court decided that the Court of Appeals’ decision was based on a misunderstanding of Florida law. The lower court’s confusion might have been understandable in light of a Florida Supreme Court holding that “an honest, good faith mistake in reporting an incident” to the police does not make the reporting person liable for an arrest or detention that the reporting person did not request.

The Supreme Court pointed out, however, that another Florida case held that “an honest, good faith mistake” does not exist when the reporting party knew, or with reasonable diligence should have known, that its allegations would probably result in an injury to an innocent person. To draw the line between an innocent mistake and a serious blunder, the court decided that a person can be held liable for an incorrect report when the report demonstrates a “wanton disregard” of the accused person’s rights.

The “wanton disregard” standard is familiar to lawyers as the test that must be met before punitive damages can be awarded in a negligence case. The standard applies to conduct that is so reckless that it constitutes a deliberate indifference to the rights of other people. For example, running a red light due to a momentary distraction does not demonstrate a wanton disregard for others. Running a red light because the driver is drunk, however, meets the wanton disregard standard.

The Supreme Court decided that a properly instructed jury could have found that the teller and other bank employees acted in wanton disregard of Valladares’ rights by reporting him to the police when there was no reasonable foundation for their suspicions. Even if the initial misidentification was justified, it should have been clear long before the police arrived that Valladares was not committing a crime, and the police should have been so informed.

The trial court did not instruct the jury about the “wanton disregard” standard of liability because the Supreme Court had not yet clarified the law when the Valladares case went to trial. The Court therefore sent the case back for a new trial. Unless the case settles, Valladares will have another chance to seek a multi-million dollar judgment against Bank of America.

(Photo Credit: "Bank of America" by Mike Mozart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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