Thursday, April 22, 2004

Suit attacks store's policy

Shoplifting charge dismissed, but woman ordered to pay

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Cincinnati woman is suing Biggs Foods, accusing the company of illegally seeking civil damages from people accused of shoplifting.

It started with a $1.06 can of cat food, Jean Riley says.

Now it's about how stores treat their customers.

The 60-year-old woman was arrested in December, accused of stealing the cat food while shopping in the Colerain Avenue store. Riley denied the theft charge and when nobody from Biggs showed up in court, a judge dismissed the charge.

The case didn't end there. The store sent Riley a form letter saying she was civilly liable for the value of the merchandise and damages. In Riley's case it was $50 - a $25 penalty and $25 in damages.

If she didn't pay in 30 days, the letter said, the store would pursue civil action that "may result in additional penalties, court costs and the price of our lawyer."

Riley paid, but this week she filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court saying the company's actions violate Ohio's consumer sales practices act, which prohibits unfair and unconscionable actions by a seller or supplier of goods and services before, during and after the sale.

"We believe these collection techniques are covered by the act," said Riley's attorney, Stephen Felson.

A spokeswoman for Biggs said the company had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

Riley is asking that the practice be stopped and the civil fee be repaid to anyone who has ever paid it.

"We don't know how often Biggs does this, but it was a form letter," Felson said.

Shoplifting costs retailers $10 billion a year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Civil recovery is a tool retailers have in all 50 states to help recoup some of that loss, according to Richard C. Hollinger, a University of Florida professor who authors the annual National Retail Security Survey.

Hollinger didn't name names, but most large retailers use civil recovery, he said.

"Shoplifting is a problem that doesn't respond well to the criminal justice system because of the costs of prosecuting somebody," Hollinger said. "By using (civil recovery) a retailer can recover the cost and a civil fine."

Meijer spokesman John Zimmerman said shoplifting is such a costly problem that Meijer stores always prosecute criminally.

"If a case is solid, you can usually depend on the courts to order restitution," he said.


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