Federal Court Upholds $3.1 Million Verdict in South Carolina Target Case

by Christian Stegmaier

A federal court in Greenville has upheld a $3.1 million jury verdict awarded to Rita Cantrell in a retail case that has drawn national attention. Cantrell sued Target Corporation, alleging causes of action for defamation and negligence stemming from her February 26, 2006, visit to a Greenville Target. 
In her pleadings and at trial, Cantrell maintained Target associates had improperly accused her of attempting to use a counterfeit $100 bill at the Target store.  After her visit to the store, Target loss prevention associates issued a BOLO (be on the lookout for) for Cantrell via email to a consortium of local loss prevention managers. Ultimately, the Secret Service became involved, questioning Cantrell at her workplace about the bill.  The Secret Service found the bill not be counterfeit, but instead 30-years-old.  
The verdict included an award of $100,000 for actual damages and $3 million for punitive damages.  Cantrell’s only “hard” or special damages was a $200 medical bill.
In a statement issued after the court’s post-trial order, Target stated that it regretted what had happened to Cantrell, but would appeal the verdict.   
Indubitably, an appeal by Target will feature the argument that the punitive damages award was excessive.  Recent case law emanating from the United States Supreme Court in the Exxon Valdez litigation supports the proposition that punitive damages should be limited to comport with the actual damages award.  The Exxon Valdez case, however, was a maritime case.  The Target appeal may be one of the first cases where the Exxon Valdez principles are applied in a non-maritime dispute. 
An appeal of a verdict rendered in federal court in South Carolina would be reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which is located in Richmond, Virginia. Appeals to the Fourth Circuit are typically adjudicated within a year of commencement. 
Cantrell v. Target Corp., No. 6:06-cv-02723-BHH (D.S.C. 2008)
News report of order upholding verdict: http://www.heraldonline.com/scnews/state_regional_interest/story/1346023.html
Pre-trial order denying Target’s motion for summary judgment: http://welterlaw.com/blog//www/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/cantrell-order-msj.pdf
About Christian Stegmaier
Senior Shareholder

Christian Stegmaier is a shareholder and chair of the Retail & Hospitality Practice Group at Collins & Lacy in Columbia. He is also active in the firm’s professional liability and appellate practices. Stegmaier welcomes your questions at (803) 255-0454 or cstegmaier@collinsandlacy.com.