Wal-Mart drops legal pursuit of brain-damaged former stacker
* Andrew Clark in New York
* The Guardian,
* Thursday April 3 2008
Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, has dropped its attempt to sue a
brain-damaged, paralysed former shelf-stacker for $400,000 (£202,000) to
recoup healthcare costs arising from her injuries in a serious road accident.
The Arkansas-based company, which owns Britain's Asda chain, faced a public
outcry over the case against Debbie Shank, a 52-year-old mother-of-three
from Missouri who has been confined to a nursing home since a tractor
slammed into her minivan eight years ago.
Shank lost much of her memory and has been unable to walk or communicate
since. Soon after the crash, her 18-year-old son Jeremy was killed in Iraq.
As a Wal-Mart employee, Shank subscribed to company healthcare insurance,
which initially picked up the tab for her care. But her relatives decided to
sue a trucking company responsible for the accident, winning $700,000 in
damages. After expenses, the Shank family received $417,000 - and Wal-Mart
filed a lawsuit declaring it was entitled to the money as reimbursement for
its healthcare fund.
The family appealed all the way to the supreme court, which refused to hear
the case, leaving Wal-Mart as the victor.
The battle has proven a public relations catastrophe for the company, long
pilloried for its anti-union policies, insensitive personnel management and
paltry employee benefits.
Its action against the family prompted a host on national cable channel
MSNBC to name Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott the "worst person in the
world". Critics pointed out the money was a drop in the ocean for Wal-Mart,
which made a profit of $12.7bn last year. After an extensive campaign,
including a petition signed by hundreds of employees, Wal-Mart did an
about-turn this week. In a letter to Shank's husband, Jim, the firm apologised.
"Occasionally, others help us step back and look at a situation in a
different way. This is one of those times," said the letter from Wal-Mart's
executive vice-president for store operations, Pat Curran. "We have all been
moved by Ms Shank's extraordinary situation."
She said Wal-Mart would drop its claim and would work with the family on
Shank's continuing care, adding: "We are sorry for any additional stress
this uncertainty has placed on you and your family."
Shank's husband said he initially thought the letter was an April fool's
joke. He told CNN: "I would like to let them know they did the right thing.
I just wish it hadn't taken so long."