BANGOR — Debra McCann of Bangor claimed to be one of Wal-Mart’s biggest fans until a shopping excursion turned into a pre-holiday nightmare nearly 22 months ago.
Now, the single mother and two of her three teen-age children are suing the Wal-Mart store on Springer Drive in Bangor and its parent corporation in Arkansas for false imprisonment and defamation.
The lawsuit, which is unfolding this week before a jury at U.S. District Court, charges that two Wal-Mart employees in Bangor stopped McCann, her daughter Jillian, then 16, and son Jonathan, then 12, as they tried to leave the store the night of Dec. 11, 1996.
The store employees loudly — and wrongfully — accused McCann’s son of previously shoplifting at the facility, according to the lawsuit. The McCanns are seeking unspecified damages. To be heard in federal court, a lawsuit must seek at least $75,000.
The employees misidentified McCann’s son, a fact the store giant admits. Employees thought he was another boy who had been caught shoplifting there previously.
The mix-up was revealed as the evening wore on, but not before McCann and her children were paraded past all the store’s cash registers toward an exit near the front of the building, according to court testimony Monday.
The frightened family was told to remain there, near the popcorn kiosk, while various telephone calls were made. They suffered great embarrassment as hundreds of customers passed through the cash registers and stared at them. They all seemed to comment about their predicament, according to court testimony.
Represented by Bangor lawyer John McCarthy, Wal-Mart contends that McCann and her children were not defamed or falsely imprisoned.
The store made a mistake, McCarthy said, but claims it is not punishable by a lawsuit verdict.
McCann was approached in a quiet, professional manner, according to McCarthy, who suggested the mother’s vehement reaction to the shoplifting accusation against her son, rather than Wal-Mart employees’ actions, caused heads to turn toward the family.
Denying the false imprisonment charge, McCarthy said McCann and her children were allowed to walk around near the exit area as they waited for the matter to be resolved.
“Was it false imprisonment and defamation or did the facts get adjusted with the passage of time?” McCarthy asked the eight-member jury, who will decide the case.
Attorney Sam Lanham of Bangor, who represents McCann and her children, said the events at Wal-Mart humiliated McCann and her children. The incident affects them to this day.
“This is the story about two children and their mother who were subjected to shame and public disgrace when this retailing giant literally put its finger in the face of this young man and said, `You’re a thief and not allowed in our store,”‘ Lanham said in his opening arguments.
Wal-Mart has more than 2,300 stores worldwide and employs more than 800,000 people. It is known for selling products at economical prices.
McCann testified she had shopped at Bangor’s Wal-Mart since it opened and went there “three or four times a week.”
A registered nurse, McCann said she was a single parent who watched her expenditures carefully.
Shopping was a “relaxing” pastime for her until the confrontation at Wal-Mart, McCann testified.
Her mother, Ann Smith of Brewer, testified she and Debra were “shop-a-holics” at one time.
On the night in question, McCann and her children had gone to the store at about 8 p.m. to take back an artificial Christmas tree that was too big for their home and to exchange a small Walkman-type radio with a cracked cover.
Jillian McCann nudged her mother as they waited in line near the courtesy desk and said a store employee appeared to be talking about them.
The employee was Jean Taylor, who was the highest ranking employee in the store that night. “I heard her say `maybe with parental supervision,”‘ Debra McCann testified. She didn’t hear the rest of the conversation and went about her shopping.
The meaning of the comment was made clear to her when McCann and her children attempted to check out shortly after 10 p.m. Taylor and another employee stopped their shopping cart and informed McCann she and her family were not allowed in the store.
“I was very angry,” McCann recalled of the confrontation.
“I lost control that night. When you shop with your kids you usually are in a controlled environment. I had that taken away. I wasn’t able to protect my children as I do every day. To see my son so upset, it was devastating to me,” McCann testified Monday.
The trial continues Tuesday.