A federal judge in Greenville on Friday denied Target's motion for a new trial in a defamation case filed by a Greer shopper who was falsely accused of trying to pay with a counterfeit $100 bill. “As our society increases in public surveillance, retailers cannot be deliberately indifferent to rights of their customers and must be encouraged to guard against the foreseeable injury to individuals reputation if technology and information are mishandled recklessly,” wrote Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks of the Greenville division of the U.S. District Court.
GSA Daily Staff Report
Published May 18, 2009
Target Corp. must pay a Greer woman $3.1 million for wrongfully accusing her of trying to use counterfeit bills at a store on Wade Hampton Boulevard in 2006, a federal judge ordered Friday.
“As our society increases in public surveillance, retailers cannot be deliberately indifferent to rights of their customers and must be encouraged to guard against the foreseeable injury to individuals reputation if technology and information are mishandled recklessly,” wrote Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks of the Greenville division of the U.S. District Court.
Hendricks denied Target’s motion for a new trial, upholding a jury’s findings that the retail chain’s actions were legally reprehensible and that the size of the award was appropriate given Target’s net worth.
“The whole matter is a serious one and a particularly close call,” Howe wrote. “… The court recognizes that the Fourth Circuit may view this case quite differently.”
An attorney for Target was unavailable to discuss the potential for an appeal.
Rita Cantrell sued Target for defamation after a loss-prevention employee sent an e-mail to other retail stores that eventually landed in the in-boxes of local, state and federal law enforcement officials. Cantrell claimed the e-mail wrongfully accused her of a criminal act. The e-mail contained images of Cantrell shopping and allegations that she shoplifted and tried to pass fake money. The Secret Service questioned Cantrell, examined the $100 bill in question and cleared her of any wrongdoing. The 1974 bill was not counterfeit, Secret Service determined.
A jury backed Cantrell’s defamation claim and set a $3.1 million judgment, including $100,000 for actual damages and $3 million in punitive damages.
Target’s attorney Knox Haynsworth argued in court that the jury solely, inappropriately and unfairly focused on Target’s wealth when awarding $3.1 million and that the amount would have been much smaller if a small merchant had been the defendant.
“Where are we going as a country in terms of punitive damages?” asked Haynsworth, of Brown, Massey, Evans, McLeod & Haynsworth in Greenville.
Cantrell’s attorney, Billy Wilkins of Nexsen Pruet in Greenville, told the court he was surprised the award wasn’t larger given Target’s $15 billion net worth. He also said the Supreme Court has never reversed a jury award based on the defendant’s wealth.
Haynsworth also argued that Target did not act maliciously and noted that the matter was cleared up in a matter of five days. Haynsworth also questioned any harm caused to Cantrell, saying she visited a medical office after the event but was never diagnosed with depression and never missed a day of work as result of the misunderstanding.
Wilkins argued that Target should be held accountable for failing to adequately train employees how to identify counterfeit cash, an accusation Haynsworth disputed.
In the ruling, Hendricks noted that Target, when it heard of the mistake, did not retract the email, offer an apology to Cantrell or “seriously discipline” any employee connected with the incident.