Sunday, December 7, 2014

Target Labels Customer as Counterfeitter Hit with Big Verdict

As a Pittsburgh lawyer who handles a lot of slip and fall lawsuits, I run into Target Corp. as a defendant from time to time.  I am fascinated by the extent of their electronic surveillance system that is maintained by their "Asset Protection," personnel.   Target is the industry leader in surveillance of its employees and patrons.  Unfortunately, Target can get a little carried away with the power their surveillance wields.  A good example is what happened in the case of Cantrell v. Target Corp.

The Cantrell case started back on Feb. 23, 2006, when the plaintiff Ms. Cantrell, a woman in her mid-50s who worked in retail sales, went shopping at a Target store. Court records reflect that Cantrell tried to pay for her purchases with a $100 bill. The cashier thought it was counterfeit, but did not tell her. He said he didn't have change for $100. He conferred with another Target employee who also looked at the bill and thought it appeared suspicious. The second employee contacted one of the store's an asset protection specialists who also examined the bill and thought it looked too crisp and too new. He contacted his supervisor, who told him to work with another loss prevention specialist. They then determined that they would not accept the bill.

The asset protection specialists returned to Cantrell, who had been waiting 10 to 15 minutes, told her they couldn't accept the bill and asked her if she had another form of payment. Cantrell was annoyed. She set down the merchandise on the counter, took her $100 bill and left the store.

The employees thought that was suspicious, so they took her photograph via a hidden surveillance camera. Another asset protection specialist, came into work. He met with the first asset protection specialist. They composed an e-mail and sent it to the Carolina Organized Retail Theft Task Force, which includes Kmart, Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot, Sears and JC Penny, as well as law enforcement agencies. Her photo was attached to the e-mail. In addition, a telephone call was placed to at least one other Target store in the Greenville area giving a description of Cantrell and saying, "She's trying to pass counterfeit bills, be on the lookout for her."

Cantrell went to another Target store, where the asset protection personnel kept tabs on her on closed circuit television. She leaves the store without incident. A couple of days later, she returns to Target and pays with the bill. While on the way out the door an asset protection specialist stops and asks if she paid with a $100 bill. She says, yes, and she confirms that the bill is hers when it was presented to her. She is told the store cannot accept the bill, and is asked if she has another form of payment. She says no. She gives back the merchandise and the change, retrieves her $100 bill and leaves.

Cantrell then goes to a local bank and shows them the bill, where it's confirmed that the bill is legitimate. She then goes to her job at Belk's department store, which is also a member of the task force. The Belk's loss protection people have received the e-mail with her photo and they call Target. Target sends Belk's additional images of Cantrell, including a photo of her car, which Belk's easily matches to Cantrell's car that is parked in the employee parking lot. Belk's asset protection personnel go to a supervisor who advises them to call the authorities. Secret Service arrives. Cantrell produces the bill and it's the Secret Service quickly determines that it's genuine.
Belk's sends an e-mail to the task force saying the bill is authentic and the previous e-mail should be disregarded.

Cantrell sued Target Corp. for defamation, alleging that the e-mail was sent with reckless disregard for the truth of the allegations. Her case was expertly handled by attorney Robert Ransom.  Attorney Ransom noted that Target employees received no training to detect counterfeit bills. It also appeared that the employees at the Greenville store had violated several Target policies in handling this situation. Plaintiff's counsel asked Target what it did to make sure that those who had received the original e-mail were informed that the allegations were false. Target answered that it had done nothing to set the record straight.

Plaintiff's counsel noted that the man who sent the e-mail admitted in deposition that he had never seen the $100 bill. He admitted he didn't know whether it was counterfeit. He said Cantrell didn't fit the profile of a counterfeiter and he didn't think she'd knowingly tried to pass the counterfeit bill.
Target claimed qualified privilege, arguing that it had immunity from any defamatory e-mail it may have sent.

Plaintiff's counsel countered that Target had exceeded the proper scope of the privilege by sending the e-mail to people who had no legitimate interest in receiving that information.
Injury Text:

Cantrell claimed that she was extremely distressed, thinking that everyone knew about this accusation. She was very active in her church and a number of fellow parishioners worked at various retail stores in the area. She was embarrassed and upset and became paranoid about shopping in stores with surveillance cameras. She feared there would be another incident. She lost sleep and lost her appetite, dropping 40 pounds. Her doctor prescribed Valium to help her sleep. She sought $200,000 in actual damages and $1 million to $1.7 million in punitive damages.
Defense counsel also claimed that Cantrell's allegations of mental distress were bogus and she'd made a fraudulent claim of emotional distress.

The jury clearly did not like what they heard about Target and rendered a verdict of $3,100,000- $3 million of which was for punitive damages.

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