After a trip to a local Walmart had gone awry, the big-box retailer threatened an Alabama woman with legal action. A court case did eventually ensue, but much to the superstore’s surprise, the woman was the one awarded $2.1 million many years after the incident unfolded.
Lesleigh Nurse of Semmes, Alabama, was using the self-checkout at her local Walmart while accompanied by her husband Ed and three children in November 2016 when the barcode scanner allegedly froze, according to a lawsuit that would follow years later. Lesleigh requested employee assistance to complete her transaction, never imagining she would end up arrested after being accused of shoplifting groceries.
After Lesleigh thought she finished and paid, she was stopped by an asset protection manager as she was leaving the store, according to WKRG. “I remember going in that little room and I was like, ‘This will be resolved, this was an accident, this wasn’t on purpose,'” she told the outlet. Sadly, she was mistaken as store employees did not accept her explanation. Instead, she was accused of stealing $48 worth of groceries — 11 items total, including Christmas lights, a loaf of bread, and Cap’n Crunch cereal.
After Lesleigh Nurse was arrested on warrants of shoplifting, her mugshot was taken, but the criminal charge was dropped when no one from Walmart showed up to court. However, things were far from over. Instead, the superstore tapped Palmer Reifler, a Florida law firm, and began threatening the mother-of-three with legal action unless she repaid $200, which was more than the value of the alleged “stolen goods,” Daily Mail reported.
Rather than comply, Lesleigh maintained her innocence. As a result, she was bombarded with notices from the law firm, threatening to file a civil suit against her if she did not pay them $200. The retailer allegedly directed the law firm to send the letters even though the criminal charges were dismissed, causing Lesleigh to finally take action herself.
With the damage to her reputation already done, her ability to make a living stifled by the criminal charge, and continuing to receive demand letters from a Walmart-affiliated law firm, Lesleigh filed a lawsuit against Walmart, alleging that she was falsely accused and arrested. “At first you think, ‘Well, I’ll pay it and it will all go away,'” Lesleigh recalled. “But then I’m like I didn’t do anything wrong. Why would I pay for something I didn’t do?”
Much to Lesleigh Nurse’s delight and Walmart’s dismay, a Mobile County jury unanimously voted in the woman’s favor, and Lesleigh Nurse was awarded $2.1 million after Walmart falsely accused her of stealing. That wasn’t the only bad news for the big-box store. The lawsuit not only came with a hefty price tag, but it also exposed Walmart’s alleged “malpractice of using an obscure state law to collect millions of dollars from people who shoplifted from the store,” according to Daily Mail.
The lawsuit [Lesleigh] Nurse filed against Walmart charged the company with “abuse of process,” meaning the company used the criminal charges to bolster their chances of civil recovery. Her attorney, Vince Kilborn explained: “Exactly, they prosecute her solely for the purpose of getting what they call civil recovery or money.” [Source: WKRG]
As it turns out, unlike Lesleigh, many people comply when harassed by the retailer’s law firm. In fact, according to expert testimony, Walmart routinely uses civil recovery laws in many states to get people they’ve accused of shoplifting to pay up. University of Nebraska assistant law professor Ryan Sullivan, who studied the practice, testified that Walmart charged some 1.4 million people across the country with criminal theft of property and collected more than $300 million through their civil demand letters in just a two-year period alone.
“The defendants have engaged in a pattern and practice of falsely accusing innocent Alabama citizens of shoplifting and thereafter attempting to collect money from the innocently accused,” Lesleigh Nurse’s lawsuit alleged, asserting that “Walmart funds its asset protection department by intimidating those falsely accused of shoplifting.”
It’s also worth noting that theft is considered a felony in Alabama, even at the lowest offense level of the crime. When someone steals less than $500 worth of goods or services, it is punishable by a fine of up to $6,000, one year in jail, or both. Yet, after making such a serious accusation, Walmart refused to show Lesleigh the surveillance video of her supposedly stealing, she told The New York Times.
Sadly, Walmart isn’t alone in this questionable practice either. Other major retailers routinely use such settlements in states where loosely written laws allow it. While it’s understandable that any business would want to prevent shoplifting, it becomes concerning when a billion-dollar company is able to afford to pay a law firm to threaten potentially innocent citizens, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in a two-year period.
Although the criminal charges were dropped, Lesleigh said she still has a lot of work to do to repair her reputation, which has been an ongoing battle. In an attempt to help clear his wife’s name, Ed paid a Facebook user more than $100 to remove Lesleigh’s mugshot from the platform. Although the photo was taken down and Lesleigh was vindicated, she said, “I can’t erase what people think of me in the back of their mind.” Perhaps these large chains need to reconsider their practices when innocent people are being accused. Hopefully, Lesleigh’s lawsuit makes them think twice about launching serious accusations without substantial evidence.