Plaintiffs, Learningsmith settle suit over searches of teen-agers in store


A Laurel family and a friend who are suing The Mall in Columbia and one of its shops, alleging that they were unlawfully detained and searched in 1995, have settled part of the lawsuit with the store and its employees.

An attorney representing the plaintiffs disclosed yesterday the settlement with the Learningsmith, but would not reveal the amount. An attorney for the Learningsmith also declined to disclose the sum.

The trial was scheduled to begin Monday, but yesterday afternoon Howard County Circuit Judge James B. Dudley postponed it indefinitely. A new date may be set in a few days.

The lawsuit stems from a shopping trip to the mall just before Christmas 1995 by Sandra Allen, her daughter, her mother, her two sons and one of their friends.

Allen's sons and their friend went into the Learningsmith, where a customer reported that she had seen them shoplifting.

Allen's son Christian, then 14, and his friend, Chelton Thorpe, 14, were stopped as they left the store and were searched by a store employee.

After the search, the boys joined the rest of the family at a table in the food court, where another Learningsmith employee searched them. Allen consented to both searches and complained after each search. No stolen goods were found.

During the incident, mall security guards blocked an exit from the store and stood by as Learningsmith employees conducted the searches, the Allens claim. The lawsuit also alleges that a security guard refused to let the Allens leave the mall.

The mall countered in court papers that its security guards acted appropriately and did not participate in the searches. The mall also says that any detention lasted only a few minutes.

Allen filed a complaint against the mall that night and in 1996 filed a federal lawsuit alleging, among other things, racial discrimination. Last year, a federal judge threw out the suit, saying he did not have jurisdiction to hear the case based on the plaintiffs' allegations.

He also said there was no evidence of racial discrimination. Shortly after that ruling, the Allens and Thorpe then filed suit in Howard County Circuit Court, naming the mall, its security guards, Learningsmith and its employees as defendants. The plaintiffs claim that they were humiliated by the searches and detention.

Yesterday's settlement announcement came during a brief hearing in Howard County Circuit Court before Dudley and means that the Learningsmith and its employees are no longer part of the suit.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Kevin Lyskowski, said he was confident that he could prevail at trial, even without the most active participants in the incident listed as defendants.

The mall's attorneys declined to comment.

Lyskowski said the trial should last about three days. At yesterday's hearing, Dudley said it seemed unlikely that the trial could proceed on Monday, citing scheduling issues and another pending trial.

He then postponed the case yesterday afternoon, Lyskowski said.

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