Torrance CA Feb 18 2017 A Ralphs supermarket employee who claimed he was defamed as a thief and fired from his job at a Torrance store following a false allegation that he stole $18 worth of lemonade was awarded more than $800,000 from the company, attorneys said Friday.
Troy Williams, who worked as a receiving clerk at the Ralphs on Pacific Coast Highway and Calle Mayor for 27 years, won his defamation lawsuit against the supermarket chain on Monday following a four-week trial in Los Angeles Superior Court.
“Hopefully, this sends a message to Ralphs and companies like them that they cannot treat loyal, hardworking employees such as Mr. Williams in this manner,” his attorney, Carney Shegerian, said in a statement. “Our client dedicated more than half of his life working for this company, who he thought of as family.”
Williams, 49, of Carson sued the Ralphs Grocery Co. in 2012, alleging he was fired from the job he held since he was 15, following a false accusation that he walked away from the store with six bottles of raspberry-flavored Simply Lemonade on Nov. 12, 2010, said attorney Anthony Nguyen, who represented Williams.
Williams, who had purchased Gatorade or Powerade earlier in the day, testified that he put a dozen bottles in a shopping cart at the end of his shift, handed one to a cashier to scan and told her he had 12, Nguyen said.
The refreshment was destined for Narbonne High School, where his son quarterbacked the Gauchos football team. Also named Troy, his son now plays for the Utah Utes.
During his trial last month, the cashier testified that Williams told her to ring up six bottles, which the register recorded. Williams paid $18, believing the drinks were on sale, and went on his way.
Nguyen said another employee, who was working nearby at the front courtesy desk, reported the theft allegations. She and Williams weren’t speaking at the time because Williams had previously complained about her to management.
Testifying during his trial, Williams said he did not realize he had not paid enough for the lemonade until store officials confronted him about it 10 days later. Security video showed Williams at the check stand, the basket containing the lemonade covered with a flattened cardboard box.
In an interview Friday, Ralphs attorney Daniel Kessler said the video showed Williams purposely hiding the number of lemonade bottles in the cart to steal them.
Williams, however, testified during the trial that he was taking the cardboard home to collect oil under a car he was working on and was not trying to deceive anyone.
Kessler described Williams as a “good performer,” but said the supermarket chain has a large number of employees and a zero tolerance for theft. Employee theft, he said, is a significant problem in the entire retail industry, not just at Ralphs.
Williams, Kessler said, changed his story a couple of times when loss prevention employees questioned him and was unable to remember how many bottles he purchased and how much he paid.
Kessler said Williams was treated the same as any other union employee and was legitimately terminated.
Williams, who is black, initially sued Ralphs and three employees, alleging discrimination based on race, age and disability, harassment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation.
During two years of litigation before the trial, Ralphs defense lawyers successfully persuaded a judge to dismiss most of the claims, but the defamation charge remained.
Nguyen said word spread quickly through employees and store managers at Ralphs and other supermarkets that Ralphs management considered Williams dishonest. During the trial, other employees called him a “smart thief” and a Ralphs vice president testified that it was good for the company that Williams was being used as an example for other employees to know that they would be terminated for theft.
Williams, who started a home-painting business following his firing, testified his career in the grocery field was over.
“I was probably the top or the second best receiver in the district,” Williams said. “It’s terrible to be labeled a thief.”
On Monday, jurors ordered Ralphs to pay Williams $504,000 in economic damages and $300,001 in noneconomic damages, for a total award of $804,001.
Kessler said Ralphs will appeal. Nguyen said he was pleased the jury sided with Williams.
“I feel so bad for the guy. He was there for so long,” Nguyen said. “That’s not how you treat a 27-year employee.”