Individuals caught committing larceny (shoplifting) from retail stores (such as Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor), not only face criminal charges, but will likely also receive a civil demand letter from an attorney for the store. The stores do this to try to recover their losses from the individual shoplifting as well as shoplifting in general. Additionally, the stores believe there is a deterrence factor to imposing the civil demand upon shoplifters, thereby preventing future shoplifting.
Stores are permitted to issue a civil demand to, and file a lawsuit against, an individual that the store believes committed a larceny against it, pursuant to New York General Obligations Law §11-105. The store can issue the civil demand or sue the individual shoplifter or the parents of the shoplifter if the shoplifter is a minor. If the store files a lawsuit, in order for the store to be successful in any lawsuit, the store has the burden of proof to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. That burden is far less than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt that is required in a criminal trial.
Pursuant to the New York General Obligations Law §11-105, the store can recover the retail price of the merchandise if it is not recovered in merchantable condition, up to $1500 in value. Additionally, the store can impose a penalty of either five times the retail price of the merchandise or $75, whichever is greater; however the penalty cannot exceed $500. So the store can recover both the value of the merchandise, as well as a penalty.
When an individual is caught shoplifting from a retail store, they will be brought to the loss prevention office, and essentially forced to provide their name, address and phone number, sign a statement admitting to the theft, and sign a bar-out notice that states you are not allowed back in the store, under penalty of criminal trespassing charges. The police may or may not be called, often depending on the value of the merchandise, consider yourself lucky if the police were not called. Then, a few weeks after the incident, you will receive a civil demand letter demanding that you pay an amount to satisfy the civil claim resulting from the shoplifting. The letter will go on to state that if payment is not received within 30 days, they will make further efforts to enforce their rights under the law.
WHAT THE LETTER REALLY IS
The attorneys for the stores send out hundreds of thousands, if not millions of the civil demand letters per year to individuals they claim shoplifted from their stores. Even if only a fraction of the recipients pay the civil demand, the stores still recover a lot of money. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal back in 2008 that discussed civil demands across the US which can be viewed by clicking here. The potential for recovery makes it worth the minimal cost of sending the letter. The stores’ ability to recover changes if the recipient of the letter does not pay the civil demand, because then the only remedy in NY under the General Obligations Law is for the store to file a lawsuit against the shoplifter. Stores are very unlikely to file a lawsuit to recover a couple hundred dollars since the cost of a lawsuit would likely exceed the recovery.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU RECEIVE A LETTER
If you receive a letter after being accused of shoplifting in New York, contact the Law Office of Michael D. Litman, PLLC to discuss your rights with respect to the demand, especially if you were arrested in conjunction with the shoplifting. If the alleged shoplifting occurred in New York, we can work with you to end the harassment by the stores’ attorneys.