An Alabama woman who sued Walmart, contending that she was falsely arrested on a shoplifting charge and that the ordeal had damaged her reputation, was awarded $2.1 million in punitive damages by a jury this week.
The verdict, reached on Monday by a jury in Mobile County circuit court, was confirmed by Chuck Lewis, a deputy clerk for the court’s civil division.
Recounting the episode, the woman, Lesleigh Nurse, said in an interview on Wednesday that she had just finished using a self-service checkout kiosk at the Walmart in Semmes, Ala., on Nov. 27, 2016, when the store’s employees accused her of not paying for some groceries that totaled $48.
Despite her efforts to explain that her husband had paid the full amount of $122 with his debit card, Ms. Nurse said, she was held in a back room at the store until a sheriff’s deputy arrived and told her that she would need to monitor the sheriff’s website for a warrant for her arrest.
Ms. Nurse, 36, said that the warrant charging her with shoplifting was issued 10 days later. She said she then turned herself in at the county jail in Mobile, Ala., where she remained for about four hours until she was released on bond. Semmes, where Ms. Nurse lives, is about 15 miles northwest of Mobile.
The shoplifting charge was dropped in March 2017 when the store’s asset protection specialist failed to show up to court, but Ms. Nurse said that she continued to receive letters from Walmart threatening to sue her if she didn’t pay $200.
“It was a nightmare,” Ms. Nurse said. “It was an entrapment. That’s what it felt like.”
The jury found Walmart liable for abuse of process — bringing a malicious legal proceeding against someone that is intended to harass them.
But on Ms. Nurse’s claims that she was falsely arrested, imprisoned, maliciously prosecuted and slandered, the jurors sided with the retail giant.
Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman, said on Wednesday that the retailer would file motions contesting the verdict and that it believed that the $2.1 million in damages awarded by the jury exceeded the amount allowed under the state law in Alabama.
“We continue to believe our associates acted appropriately,” Mr. Hargrove said. “We don’t believe the verdict is supported by the evidence.”
Mr. Hargrove noted that Walmart’s civil recovery program, one that had faced criticism for aggressive tactics to reach settlements with those charged with shoplifting, was discontinued in 2018. He disputed that the program had been driven by revenues, as some critics had said.
“Civil recovery programs have been reported as a profit centers, and they are not,” he said. “And that characterization about our company was not accurate.”
The district attorney and sheriff’s office in Mobile County did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
When first confronted by Walmart employees near the store’s exit, Ms. Nurse said she figured it was all a misunderstanding, but then, she said, the ground “crumbled right beneath my feet.”
“I thought, ‘There’s no fight to be fought,’” she continued. “I didn’t do anything.”
Ms. Nurse said that Walmart employees berated her during the encounter, asking how she could shoplift in front of her 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. Since then, she said, her children have been ridiculed by other students over their mother’s arrest. A carpet and upholstery cleaning business that she runs with her husband has suffered immeasurably, she said.
Throughout the ordeal, Ms. Nurse said, Walmart refused repeated requests by her lawyers for security camera footage from the store. She said that the video was critical and would have shown a store employee helping her to scan items at the checkout, some of which had to be manually entered because of a problem with the kiosk.
“I believe that they’re so intimidating and so big,” Ms. Nurse said of Walmart. “They’ve grown to be so enormous that they feel like they can do anything to anybody. That’s not right. Shame on them.”
During the civil trial, which lasted about three weeks, the judge criticized Walmart for the “intentional loss” of the security camera footage, according to court records. The judge, James T. Patterson, said that the court would advise the jury that the videotapes “were destroyed by the defendants with the intent” to deprive the plaintiff of the benefit of seeing them “and that the jury therefore is to presume that the content of the missing videos would be adverse” to the defendants.
The Walmart spokesman said he was unable to answer questions about the videos that were destroyed. According to the spokesman, the store’s former asset protection associate did appear at Ms. Nurse’s originally scheduled criminal proceeding and learned at that time it was being postponed. He left the company and did not appear at the rescheduled hearing, the spokesman said.
Vince Kilborn, a lawyer for Ms. Nurse, said on Wednesday that Walmart went out of its way to make Ms. Nurse’s life miserable.
“Her reputation is still a thief,” he said. “She’s fought against the largest retailer in the world over $48 and won.”
Ms. Nurse said that the damage caused by the arrest cannot be undone.
“There’s no amount of money that’s going to make that go away,” she said.