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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. may be the highest grossing retail chain in thecountry, but two teenage girls and their families won’t be shoppingthere this holiday season. The girls were accused of shoplifting at a McDonough, Ga., Wal-Mart. They weredetained at the store but were released when a store manager found theyhadn’t stolen anything. One girl’s mother also was detained, althoughshe was not suspected of shoplifting. According to the families’ attorney, William P. Claxton of Claxton &Claxton, his clients were victims of “shopping while black.” In O.C.G.A. � 51-7-60, Georgia law offers a retailer immunity from afalse imprisonment action when it detains suspected shoplifters — but onlyif the shopper’s behavior would have incited suspicion in a reasonableperson, and only if the manner and length of the detention werereasonable. The delicate balance for retailers — which is undoubtedly more difficultto maintain during the holiday shopping season — comes in protecting theirmerchandise while not trampling on shoppers’ rights. This holiday season, instead of making their purchases at Wal-Mart, thegirls’ Georgia and Michigan families sued the retail giant for falseimprisonment, slander and the cost of psychiatric counseling. Usingdiversity jurisdiction to sue Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, Claxton filed thesuit in federal court. Ransom v. Wal-Mart, No. 103CV3412 (N.D. Nov. 7,2003). The teens, one of whom is the daughter of a former assistant to theacting U.S. surgeon general during the Clinton administration, claimthat they were subject to racial remarks by white store employees andthat they were wrongfully detained by three white store clerks. According to Claxton, the families deserve about $250,000 for thehumiliation and psychological trauma that experience caused. For its part, Wal-Mart — with annual revenue of more than $244 billion in2002 — has denied any wrongdoing. In its answer to the complaint, thechain said the girls brought the accusation of shoplifting uponthemselves by “contributory negligence and failure to exerciseextraordinary care.” Claxton said Wal-Mart representatives told him the chain has fired thejewelry counter clerk who accused the teens and detained one girl’smother. Wal-Mart’s local attorney, Albert J. DeCusati of McLain & Merritt, whofiled the answer, did not return several calls for comment by presstime. Neither did Wal-Mart’s corporate office. NO LAUGHING MATTER According to Claxton, the Wal-Mart clerk’s suspicion was triggered by acommon teen behavior: laughter. According to the complaint, 14-year-old Ashlie Ransom — a Stockbridge highschool cross-country star, Navy ROTC chaplain and class officer — and hercousin, 13-year-old Melanie Howard of Farmington Hills, Mich., weregiggling as they walked through the jewelry department of the Wal-Martin June. A clerk saw them laughing, became suspicious and enlisted the aid ofanother clerk to follow the girls around the store and into the ladies’room. The clerks were not wearing Wal-Mart identification at the time,so the girls were frightened, said Claxton. Meanwhile, the girls’ mothers, Anita Ransom and Leatha Howard, wereshopping for Father’s Day gifts. The girls and their mothers hadseparated in the store but regrouped at the checkout stand. After they paid for their merchandise, the girls and Anita Ransom weredetained for more than 30 minutes at the store’s entrance by the”greeter” and the two clerks. The complaint lists those employees onlyas Jane, Savannah and Jennifer Doe, all of whom are white, said Claxton. According to the complaint, a clerk used her hands to detain AnitaRansom. This amounts to simple battery and wrongful detention, thecomplaint alleges, because Anita Ransom wasn’t accused of shopliftingand shouldn’t have been prevented from leaving. Other customers, including Ashlie Ransom’s friends, Claxton said, sawAnita Ransom and the girls detained at the entrance. The complaintstates that at one point a clerk remarked to incoming customers, “Thatgirl over there just said that she is tired of us white people.” The clerks accused the girls of putting jewelry in their pants pockets.That’s absurd, Claxton said, because the girls’ pants didn’t havepockets — a fact they demonstrated to store employees. Eventually, the assistant store manager, Don Bethel, came to theentrance, saw that the girls hadn’t stolen anything, apologized to themother and released them, according to Claxton. GIRLS TRAUMATIZED, LAWYER SAYS Claxton said the girls since have undergone psychiatric therapy becausethey felt they were verbally abused in public by the white clerks whodetained them. Ashlie was embarrassed and humiliated in front of peopleshe knew, Claxton said. Since the incident, one of the teens has asked to sleep with herparents, said Claxton, and the other is “terrified” of shopping becauseshe fears racial targeting and feels everyone is watching her. The Ransom family now refuses to patronize Wal-Mart, according toClaxton. That has been a major loss to the family, he said, explaining,”They would shop there probably daily. It was part of their daily life.” The two families sued the retailer for slander per se, battery, falseimprisonment, medical expenses, punitive damages and attorney fees. Though no hearing date has been set, the two sides have begun discovery,said Claxton. The case was assigned to Northern District Judge ClarenceCooper. Claxton said settlement talks with Wal-Mart collapsed after the retailchain offered $10,000 to settle the suit — a small fraction of the$250,000 Claxton believes the families are due. In addition to denying any wrongdoing, Wal-Mart’s answer complains thatGeorgia tort statutes in general “allow for the deprivation of propertywithout due process.” The store also said the plaintiffs entered attheir own risk and of their own consent. Wal-Mart’s answer also calls Georgia’s tort law unconstitutional andvoid and describes it as “unpredictable, arbitrary, capricious anddisproportionate” because it allows a jury the “unbridled discretion” toimpose punitive damages. The answer doesn’t cite which statutes are unconstitutional, citinginstead, “The statutes of the State of Georgia which authorize theimposition of aggravated, exemplary or punitive damages are contrary …to the Constitution of the United States … and the GeorgiaConstitution and are, therefore, void inasmuch as said statutes allowfor the deprivation of property without due process of law.” According to Claxton, the Ransom family was incredulous about theaccusations leveled against their daughter. Ashlie, a straight-A student, comes from a professional andlaw-respecting family, Claxton added. Her father, Allen Ransom, is anofficer with the Henry County Sheriff’s Department. Her mother, Anita,works for Emory University and previously has worked for Audrey F.Manley, who was the acting U.S. surgeon general during the Clintonadministration and a former president of Spelman College. Assistant Managing Editor Janet L. Conley contributed to this story.

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