Cantrell v. Target: $200 medical bill = $3.1 million verdict

by Ted Frank on November 2, 2008

Let us stipulate: when Rita Cantrell tried to pay for her goods with a thirty-year-old $100 bill, Target employees were foolish in being unable to recognize the old currency, and mistakenly identified it as a possible counterfeit. Cantrell fled the store when Target asked if she had another means of paying, raising suspicions, so Target security staff passed along a photo of Cantrell to 70 other local stores participating in a loss-prevention consortium to notify them of the incident. One of the stores recognized Cantrell as one of its employees and called in the Secret Service, which investigated, and found that the bill was real; Target passed along a new notice clearing Cantrell of any wrongdoing.

Cantrell, shaken and embarrassed by the involvement of the Secret Service and her employer, incurred $200 of medical expenses–and sued. Cantrell acknowledged that Target had a right to notify other stores of the incident, but complained that the manager could have worded his e-mail differently, and, besides, some of the members of the loss-prevention consortium did not have retail operations and thus did not need to know about the incident.  Notwithstanding Target’s motion for summary judgment, the court let the case proceed to a jury, which happily proposed that Cantrell be made a millionaire for the inconvenience–$100,000 in “compensatory” damages, and a 30-1 punitive damages ratio. Magistrate Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks entered judgment without touching the figure or waiting for post-trial briefing, and Target says it will appeal, so we’ll see what the Fourth Circuit does with this next year. (Cantrell v. Target Corp., No. 6:06-cv-02723-BHH (D.S.C. 2008); Eric Connor, “Jury set $3.1 milion award in Target case, lawyer says”, Greenville News, Oct. 28).

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The Laconic Law Blog » Blog Archive » A Lesson For Employers In $3 Million Defamation Verdict
11.03.08 at 6:21 pm

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1 nn nn 11.02.08 at 10:10 am

Your claim that the plaintiff here “fled” the store is misleading. The defendant’s own motion for summary judgment that you cite, http://www.fileden.com/files/2008/5/16/1914169/cantrell-msj.pdf , says only that the plaintiff “walked out” after indicating she had no other form of payment. (page 1).

You also state that “notwithstanding” the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the judge allowed the case to proceed to the jury. But the motion you posted was incoherent – among other things, it removed all periods following case citations, one of the more distracting affectations I have seen in a non-pro se brief. But even if the motion were creditaby written, whether the defendant’s defamation was malicious or negligent was obviously a jury question, which is probably why not much work went into the motion.

Finally, your case description is highly misleading in that you say that employees identified the bill as “possibly” counterfeit. In fact, the employees at Target stated that plaintiff had actually tried to pass a *definitely* (not “possibly”) counterfeit bill: the Target Asset Protection Specialist emailed “The lady pictured attempted to use a counterfeit bill.” That per se defamation was then forwarded by Target to 63 retailers, law enforcement agencies, and detective agencies. http://www.fileden.com/files/2008/5/16/1914169/cantrell-order.pdf , page 1. Thus, this is not at all a case of an employee thinking a bill might “possibly” be counterfeit. It’s a case of an employee definitely accusing, without evidence, an innocent customer of counterfeiting – and then broadcasting the accusation to 60 organizations.

2 Eric Turkewitz 11.02.08 at 10:51 am

That’s odd, I read the decision and it didn’t say she “fled” the store. It said she left.

Also, Target didn’t identify the money as a “possible” counterfeit. It said “The lady pictured attempted to use a counterfeit 100 dollar bill today.” Why did you add a qualifier like “possible” that doesn’t exist and materially changes the story?

Also, the follow-up email didn’t “clear” the plaintiff of being a counterfeiter, as you said, but said to disregard the prior message because the incident had “been investigated and resolved.” That could mean the person was cleared, or was in custody. Again, a material change in the story.

In any event, how much do you think Target should pay in punitive damages (based on the actual story)?

Or would you like to re-write the laws of defamation and give Target immunity for its conduct?

3 William Nuesslein 11.02.08 at 11:24 am

How did she have $200 of medical expenses? Was she water-boarded? Where did the $100,000 come from? Who put the judge on the bench? GOOD GRIEF!

As to punitive damages, a sincere apology would do!

4 Ted Frank 11.02.08 at 11:32 am

Eric, you’re misrepresenting the record. The first corrective e-mail sent said “Secret Service, Agent Greg Johnson, has tested this bill and found it to be real. Please disregard any prior e-mails on this customer. Destroy any pictures relating to this message.” And, yes, refusing to answer questions and leaving the store without making a purchase seems like fleeing to an objective observer.

Given the plaintiff suffered no actual injury, and given the lack of malice, I’m hard pressed to justify even four digits of damages, much less seven–and that’s given the questionable legal assumption that there’s any liability at all for a good-faith mistake. The alternative legal rule would destroy the viability of loss-prevention consortiums, substantially raising costs to consumers just so the occasional false positive and concomitant $200 medical bill can be avoided.

5 Jerry 11.02.08 at 1:45 pm

Apparently the original email also accused Cantrell of shoplifting. I don’t believe that there was any evidence of that, was there?

6 Dirk D 11.02.08 at 5:51 pm

“Or would you like to re-write the laws of defamation and give Target immunity for its conduct?”

Best straw man I’ve seen this week.

7 Bill Poser 11.02.08 at 7:23 pm

Since the “publication” of the alleged defamatory statements was limited to the loss prevention consortium, wouldn’t the defendant have a defense of qualified immunity here?

8 nevins 11.02.08 at 9:51 pm

Didn’t recognize a $100 bill? I’m no geezer and that bill looked as typical as all the others that I’ve seen.

9 tyree 11.03.08 at 12:46 am

Actually, I think we should rewrite the laws of Defamation. Make it illegal to sue anyone for defamation for a year. Then let all the voters, lawyers excluded, decide whether the USA is better off or not. It is not even possible to try this but it sure would be interesting.

10 Todd Rogers 11.03.08 at 9:37 am

Think of the ROI on that $100 – Who said cash wasn’t king?

11 Eric Turkewitz 11.03.08 at 10:05 am

Eric, you’re misrepresenting the record.

To the contrary. I see a few misrepresentations that you have made, including the erroneous comment that she “fled,” that Target only said it was “possibly” counterfeit and that she had no injuries.

I’ve expanded on those differences in a new post here:

Target Hit for $3M in Defamation Punitives (And Tort “Reformer” Sees Opportunity)

12 nn nn 11.03.08 at 3:26 pm

[To moderator: The formatting in my post is messed up because of the inclusion of the URL's, which extend far beyond the right side of the column, at least on my browser. Please either (a) reedit the original so that the URLs are short links, or (b) use the following version, in which I removed the URLs]:
Your claim that the plaintiff here “fled” the store is misleading. The defendant’s own motion for summary judgment that you cite says only that the plaintiff “walked out” after indicating she had no other form of payment (motion for summary judgment, p. 1).

You also state that “notwithstanding” the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the judge allowed the case to proceed to the jury. But the motion you posted was incoherent – among other things, it removed all periods following case citations, one of the more distracting affectations I have seen in a non-pro se brief. But even if the motion were creditably written, whether the defendant’s defamation was malicious or negligent was obviously a jury question, which is probably why not much work went into the motion.

Finally, your case description is highly misleading in that you say that employees identified the bill as “possibly” counterfeit. In fact, the employees at Target stated that plaintiff had actually tried to pass a *definitely* (not “possibly”) counterfeit bill: the Target Asset Protection Specialist emailed “The lady pictured attempted to use a counterfeit bill.” That per se defamation was then forwarded by Target to 63 retailers, law enforcement agencies, and detective agencies (order, p. 1). Thus, this is not at all a case of an employee thinking a bill might “possibly” be counterfeit. It’s a case of an employee definitely accusing, without evidence, an innocent customer of counterfeiting – and then broadcasting the accusation to 60 organizations.

13 Ted 11.04.08 at 9:57 am

Eric’s post on his blog not only misrepresents the record and the law, but misrepresents what I said about the record.

14 Larry Reilly 11.04.08 at 5:27 pm

Ted says “refusing to answer questions and leaving the store without making a purchase seems like fleeing to an objective observer.”
Say what? You have to be a hard-core subjective observer for that one.
Woman goes to cash register in store with genuine $100 bill. Store employee refuses to take the money as payment, saying it is counterfeit. Woman leaves.
What’s missing here Ted?
Should the woman have:
a) stood at the cash register and debated, maybe even argued, perhaps in a loud voice, that the money is MONEY and take it and give me a receipt and change. Yeah, right.
b) ask that the store manager call in the Secret Service, and wait there with them for perhaps hours on the chance that the SS responds. Time is money, ya know.
c) made a purchase? Let me get this straight. Woman goes into a store with a genuine $100 bill and the store refused to take it, telling her it looks phony. Ted thinks she supposed to remain cheerful and take no offense and go out of her way at this point to dig up some other funds and make a purchase from this store that, in her mind, I expect, has just insulted her?
Objective observer? Ted, why did you put the word “possible” in there?

15 Ted 11.04.08 at 7:43 pm

I put the word “possible” in there, because that is what happened: the store investigated whether the bill was a counterfeit. It wasn’t sure one way or the other when it did the investigation. Turkewitz then misquotes me and falsely claims that I said the email talked of a possible counterfeit, when I did no such thing.

Reilly misstates the facts of what happened. Target did not accuse Cantrell to her face of trying to pass a counterfeit. The store simply asked Cantrell if she had anything else to pay with, and she responded by walking out without a word or even a “What’s wrong with my $100 bill?”, and one can reasonably consider that suspicious behavior.

And, again, there is no evidence of injury beyond the $200 medical bill.

16 Eric Turkewitz 11.04.08 at 10:10 pm

Turkewitz then misquotes me

I did a cut and paste of your own language that watered down the lawsuit.

she responded by walking out without a word or even a “What’s wrong with my $100 bill?”, and one can reasonably consider that suspicious behavior.

Nope. According to Target’s own brief — no the plaintiff’s brief but Target’s — she “shook her head no and walked out of the store” when asked if she had any other funds to use. I think it’s fair to say that shaking your head no is fairly well understood language. You think she should have gone shopping with a lawyer by her side so she could respond exactly as you want when hit with this surprise?

And as “to evidence of injury” — were you in the courtroom hearing the evidence?

17 John Rohan 11.05.08 at 2:38 am

The trial lawyers in this thread are very defensive.
Hey, instead of repeating, ad nauseum, that the woman walked out of the store, and that the employees accused her of definitely using a counterfeit bill, how about a word about the real problem with the case?

Like, does this mistake add up to anything even close to $3.1 million dollars? Can you even try to defend that decision?

18 Ted 11.05.08 at 5:47 am

You think she should have gone shopping with a lawyer by her side so she could respond exactly as you want when hit with this surprise?

You clearly think no one should write an email without a lawyer by their side, on penalty of $3.1 million on a technicality that provided no lasting injury to anyone.

19 shg 11.05.08 at 7:03 am

You clearly think no one should write an email without a lawyer by their side,

No one should publish and disseminate an accusation of criminal conduct without being certain that they are correct, or they do so at their own peril.

on penalty of $3.1 million

Juries arrive at damage awards, as you are painfully aware. The awards are the subject to review, as you are painfully aware. The alternative is to have all awards subject to “Ted Review,” as you might think advisable, but that’s not the American system, as you are painfully aware. While you think poorly of the Americans who sit on juries, there just aren’t enough “Teds” to manage all award decision-making to meet your expectations.

on a technicality

Hardly a technicality, but a well-established, long-standing cause of action.

that provided no lasting injury to anyone.

Ironic that you say such a thing, since you, more than anyone, find it reprehensible and damaging when anyone challenges your opinion and reputation. Being perhaps the most rabid of advocates, you of all people should appreciate the impact of having a reputation smeared. You hate to be challenged, but would deny that same sensibility to anyone else.

20 nn nn 11.05.08 at 2:28 pm

I actually agree with much of Ted Frank’s legal philosophy. Most of the abuses he points out here are indeed abusive. But this was a case where there were several critical factual errors in his description of the case. Moreover, this was a case in which the plaintiff was justified: she suffered real, serious harm due to negligent or unconscionable behavior by the defendant.

The lesson corporations take from a case should be simply not to accuse a person of serious crimes, and not to publish that accusation to large numbers of law enforcement agencies, unless there is solid evidence of the person’s guilt. Trying to use a valid $100 bill to pay, and leaving the store when told the bill would not be accepted, is not “solid evidence” of counterfeiting.

It is sad how every once in a while this site seizes on ameritorious actions and mocks it, sometimes by distorting the facts as here, sometimes in other ways. I think this drastically weakens the persuasiveness of this site.

21 Karen H Antolick 11.22.08 at 1:09 am

Oh please, Ted Frank either needs to learn to read or to learn to absorb the “actual” facts of a document prior to commenting on it.

No one “fled” the scene. There was no mistake of identifying it as possibly counterfeit. The email they sent out to the masses identified her as a thief and a forger. They attached her picture, how much more do you need to know that Target was 100% in the wrong. Run down to the Post Office and hang it on the wall!

I agree with the juries verdict, you can bet your (or Target’s) “last dollar” they will not make this mistake again.

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