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Might want to be careful next time you accept free samples at your local supermarket. Take too many, and you could get arrested and end up suing the store.

That’s what happened to 68-year-old Erwin Lingitz of Gem Lake, Minnesota. In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, the retiree is seeking up to $375,000 from the store security guard, police, the supermarket and the county.

There are two sides to every story, of course, and this one is no exception. Lingitz’s version goes like this: Back in April 2010, he went into a Cub Foods store in White Bear Lake, in the suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul area. And, ooh look, free cold cuts! While his wife waited in the car, Lingitz decided to have a taste of the delicious deli meat that was being offered at a sample station. It turned out to be so tasty, he asked if he could have another sample to take to his wife. So he slipped the treat into his pocket and went on his way.

That, he says, is when a store security guard stopped him, demanding to know what he had just shoplifted. A “physical struggle” ensued, according to the lawsuit, as the security guard allegedly reached into Lingitz’s pocket to see what he had swiped. The suit says police officers soon joined the struggle, leaving Lingitz bleeding, battered and bruised by the time he was taken to jail. He was charged with shoplifting, disorderly conduct and interfering with police officers, charges that were ultimately dismissed after he completed one year of unsupervised probation.

The store’s version of the story is just a little different. Mike Siemienas, spokesman for Cub Foods parent company Supervalu, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Lingitz helped himself to far more than one extra sample for his wife. He says the sampling station was unattended, and no one gave Lingitz permission to take any additional samples. And they certainly didn’t give him permission to load up two produce bags full of deli meat. After the altercation, Siemienas told the newspaper that store officials weighed the bags and they tipped the scales at 1.4 pounds. “A reasonable person would not fill two produce bags with 1.4 pounds of deli meat samples to take out of the store,” Siemienas said. “The plaintiff violated societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices.”

What are “free sample practices” exactly? Siemienas says it’s just “common sense”. Do we really want to live in a world, after all, where sample stations post rules of conduct, or store employees make us sign a release form before letting us try any freebies?

Lingitz’s attorney argues that the point is whether the security guard and police overreacted. “The situation, even under a worst-case scenario, didn’t rise to the level of a need for this kind of force,” Robert Gardner told the Pioneer Press. Siemienas argued that the ensuing struggle came about not because the security guard overreacted, but because Lingitz was uncooperative.

Then there’s the argument from Lingitz’s wife. She says free means free – and without a posted limit on how many samples a customer can take, the store has no case. Whether he pocketed one sample, or took two bagfuls “is irrelevant, because it was free anyway, so what is the point?” she told the Pioneer Press. “Something is either free or it isn’t. You can’t arrest somebody for thievery if it is free.”

The ultimate question is what exactly constitutes “societal norms” in a case like this. Is it normal to beat up an old man who swipes more than his share of freebies? Or is it normal to grab all the freebies from a sample station that you can carry?

A jury of Lingitz’s peers may ultimately have to decide.


photo by: Andrew Michaels

One Comment

  1. Looks like we will soon see the word: “sample” defined in some obscure dictionary somewhere…
    More importantly, I’d like to know who started the ‘struggle’. I’ll wager there is p-king lot video locked up in someone’s desk drawer…You think?

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