A federal appeals court has overturned a $300,000 award to a former University of Maryland student who sued a Virginia theme park that she said falsely arrested her and accused her of writing bad checks.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said Monday that Paramount’s Kings Dominion was not at fault because Stephanie P. Austin “failed to establish that any deprivation of her federal rights was caused by an official policy or custom” of the theme park.
“I think I can say that Paramount Park is grateful that the court upheld the practices and procedures at Paramount’s Kings Dominion and found the park followed (Virginia and U.S.) laws,” said Steven McCallum, an attorney for the theme park. “We feel that the right result was reached and we feel vindicated in our actions.”
Austin could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Andrew J. Toland of Shapiro and Olander in Baltimore, said Tuesday that he had no comment because he had not yet seen the court opinion.
Austin was arrested May 21, 1994, after two Kings Dominion cashiers and a supervisor identified her as the woman who had written a bad $360 check at the park on May 15 under the name “Donita Morgan.”
The employees said Austin fit the description of Morgan as a “black female … with twisted hair.” She was questioned for several hours by park police officers, arrested and charged with grand larceny. An additional forgery charge was added July 14, 1994, after the check came back from the bank.
Austin, who was a 23-year-old University of Maryland student at the time, insisted that she was at a university banquet the day the bad checks were written, but she provided no evidence to support that fact, according to the court opinion.
The day after the May 21 arrest, however, the supervisor who had identified Austin as Morgan saw another black woman with braided hair, who she said fit the description of Morgan.
Park Police Sgt. Cindy Gatewood said the Hanover County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office decided to go proceed with the case against Austin even though another woman had also been identified as Morgan. Gatewood said prosecutors told her that “there’s more than one person, you have your witness, and we’re going to go forward with the case, if there’s a scheme and bust the scheme,” the court said.
But the prosecutor’s office dropped the charges against Austin in April 1995, after learning of the second “Donita Morgan” suspect.
Austin sued and the case eventually landed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, where she charged the theme park with false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, assault and battery and negligence under Virginia law. She also claimed violation of her federal constitutional rights in the incident.
A jury ruled that Paramount had probable cause to arrest Austin on May 21, but not on July 14 when the other charges were added. It found that Austin had been falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted in the July incident and awarded her $80,000 in damages. The court later awarded her $256,365 in attorney’s fees and expenses.
But a three-judge panel of the appeals court reversed that decision Monday, noting that the Park Police Department reports directly to the Hanover County sheriff and not to Paramount. Because of that, U.S. Circuit Judge William B. Traxler Jr. wrote, the theme park “cannot be held vicariously liable with respect to Austin’s claims for false arrest … and malicious prosecution.”
The court vacated the judgment for Austin, vacated the award of attorney’s fees and sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte with directions that judgment as a matter of law be entered in favor of Paramount.