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Jury awards Wal-Mart worker $13.9 million

Roslyn Haley Campbell, a one-time cashier and now a telephone operator at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., took her employer to court and won a $13.9 million verdict against the company.

Amazingly, she still works there.

A Jackson County jury last month found that an off-duty police officer at the Wal-Mart near Bannister and Hillcrest roads falsely imprisoned Campbell and awarded her $2 million in actual damages and $11.9 million in punitive damages.

"I think the jury empathized with what she'd been through," said Kirk Holman of Kirk D. Holman PC, who, with Michael Fletcher of Sanders Simpson & Fletcher, represented Campbell.

Ten jurors empathized, anyway. The two others were unwilling to find Wal-Mart liable.

The case stemmed from an encounter Campbell, at the time a cashier at the store for 3½ years, had with a belligerent, profanity-spewing customer in October 2002. The customer apparently was upset that Campbell's counter was wet and started yelling at her.

Campbell couldn't find any paper towels, which made the customer even more belligerent. She then sought assistance from the store's customer service manager.

Testimony on what happened next was somewhat conflicting, but witnesses for Campbell said that she asked the customer to stop calling her names. At that point, an off-duty Kansas City police officer working as a security guard intervened and detained not the customer but Campbell.

The off-duty officer testified that Campbell had run toward the customer in a threatening manner and that he sought to place himself between them.

Campbell, however, tried to punch the customer over his shoulder, he said, prompting him to restrain her. According to his testimony, Campbell committed no fewer than five felonies during the incident, which would have been reason for him to arrest her.

He didn't. Instead, according to Campbell's witnesses, he smashed her head into a glass wall, then took her to the store's apprehension room and handcuffed her.

Campbell sued both the officer and Wal-Mart, but on the eve of trial the officer was dropped as a defendant. The case proceeded against Wal-Mart alone and, following a four-day trial, the jury came back with its verdict.

"The customer service manager and several customers said they never saw Campbell run toward the customer or make threatening gestures," Holman said.

Although Campbell incurred minimal medical costs (which Wal-Mart paid for), Holman and Fletcher asked the jury to award her between $1 million and $3 million in compensatory damages for the humiliation she suffered. The $11.9 million in punitive damages, Holman said, represented a tenth of 1 percent of Wal-Mart's $11.9 billion operating profit.

After the incident, Campbell sought a transfer to another store. Instead, she was given a back-room job as a phone operator at the same store, where she continues to work.

The security guard also continued working at the store until recently. Holman said that, except for a written statement the store asked him to give, it never interviewed him about the incident.

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