Update (2:35 p.m.): After this story was first published, Walmart issued a comment on the case, which is now added at the bottom of this story.
MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — A Mobile County Circuit Court jury unanimously awarded $2.1m to a Semmes woman who says she was falsely accused of shoplifting from the Semmes Walmart back in 2016. She talked exclusively to News 5 about the incident and the lawsuit she filed against the company in hopes of clearing her name.
Lesleigh Nurse says she was at the self-checkout at the Semmes Walmart with her husband and three kids, fighting a malfunctioning scanner, even getting help from a Walmart associate. After she thought she’d finished and paid, she was stopped by an asset protection manager.
“I remember going in that little room and thinking this will be resolved, this is an accident, this isn’t on purpose,” said Nurse.
She was eventually charged with stealing $48 worth of groceries — 11 items in all — including Christmas lights, a loaf of bread, and Cap’n Crunch cereal. She was arrested, mugshot taken, but the criminal charge was dropped when no one from Walmart showed up to court. By then, she said the damage to her reputation had already been done — her ability to make a living stifled by the criminal charge. What was worse, she continued to receive demand letters from a Walmart-affiliated law firm offering to drop the matter if she paid them 200 dollars.
“At first you think ‘well, I’ll pay it and it will all go away,'” Nurse said. “But then I’m like I didn’t do anything wrong. Why would I pay for something I didn’t do?”
But it turns out many people do pay. During testimony in the lawsuit she filed against the company, an expert testified Walmart routinely uses what are known as 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 has studied the practice testified that in a two-year period, Walmart charged some 1.4 million people across the country with criminal theft of property — and ended up collecting more than $300 million through their civil demand letters in the same period.
The lawsuit 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.”
To add insult to injury, Walmart never produced a video that would have been recorded at the self-checkout area that would have proved Nurse shoplifted or didn’t.
“It would have shown the truth, and that they didn’t want the truth to be shown,” she said.
At the end of this lawsuit, filed in 2018 and delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a unanimous jury found for Nurse and awarded her $2.1 million dollars in punitive damages.
“I hope it makes a difference. I don’t want anybody else to have to go through this again,” said Nurse.
Defense attorneys declined to comment on the verdict. Lesleigh Nurse’s attorneys believe Walmart will appeal.
Walmart offered this statement Tuesday afternoon after this story was first published:
“We want our customers to have a safe, pleasant shopping experience in our stores. We take measures to help prevent, identify and appropriately handle instances of theft, which is a problem for all retailers that costs the overall U.S. economy tens of billions of dollars each year. We continue to believe our associates acted appropriately. We don’t believe the verdict is supported by the evidence and the damages awarded exceed what is allowed by law. We will be filing post-trial motions.”