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A Mississippi jury has ordered Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to pay $8.5 million to a former employee who was fired after being accused of shoplifting chewing tobacco. Plaintiff Lamon Griggs charged Wal-Mart with defamation, asserting that store personnel had falsely accused him of theft and spread those allegations. Griggs also claimed wrongful termination, but that count was dismissed before verdict, as Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Andrew Howarth found that state law precluded such a claim because Griggs was an at-will employee. Griggs was working as a truck driver for Wal-Mart in Hammond, La., in 1997, “when he picked up some chewing tobacco to purchase, then remembered he had to call in to his supervisor,” said plaintiff’s attorney Luke Fisher of Tupelo, Miss.’s Waide & Associates. As Griggs left the store looking for a phone, he informed the “greeter” at the door that he had the tobacco but had to step out, Fisher added. Before he could come back in the store, Fisher said, “the store’s loss prevention people stopped him.” Griggs gave a written statement to his supervisor that he had never intended to take the tobacco, said plaintiff’s attorney Jim Waide of Tupelo. But Griggs was fired, per Wal-Mart policy on dismissing employees caught taking merchandise from the store, Waide said. “The other drivers revolted,” said Fisher. “They all knew he didn’t do it.” The Wal-Mart supervisor, “in order to put down the rebellion, claimed Lamon was an habitual thief.” The supervisor told the plaintiff’s co-workers that “Wal-Mart had a videotape of Lamon stealing and that they suspected him of other thefts,” Fisher said. There was no videotape and no other allegations or suspicions of wrongdoing, said Waide. Wal-Mart denied spreading false accusations and contended that Griggs had admitted the theft in his statement to the supervisor immediately following the incident. “In Griggs’ own statement to his supervisor, he begged for forgiveness,” said defense attorney William Luckett of Clarksdale, Miss. There was no admission of guilt, Waide said. In this initial statement, Griggs “was saying he was sorry about the policy, not that he had stolen the tobacco.” To counter the contention that Griggs was a thief, said Waide, the plaintiff’s attorneys called character witnesses who testified that “Griggs would never steal.” Even the Wal-Mart supervisor, said Fisher, had agreed that Griggs was an honest employee. At the time of the firing, Waide said, Griggs was earning $70,000 a year. Afterward he was unable to find another trucking job and is now working part time with the Chickasaw County sheriff’s department in Mississippi. Prior to trial, Luckett noted, the defense had unsuccessfully sought a change of venue from the plaintiff’s hometown, Houston, Miss. The jury awarded Griggs $1.5 million in actual damages and $7 million in punitives. Prior to trial, the defense had offered $30,000 to settle. “We countered with $1.2 million, but I told Mr. Luckett I would go to $750,000,” Waide said. Wal-Mart will file post-trial motions to set aside or reverse the verdict. If these fail, an appeal is expected . Griggs v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., No. H 98-145 (Chickasaw Co., Miss., Cir. Ct.).

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