The Day Wal-Mart Backed Down

Outrage Over Shank Affair Makes Retailer Reconsider

By Published on .

Late last week I called Wal-Mart to see if it was putting together a media relations plan to deal with the Debbie Shank issue.

If you don't know who Debbie Shank is, and unfortunately many people don't, click on this link to read all the details of her heart-wrenching story. The short version of her story is that she is a former Wal-Mart employee that was left severely brain damaged and disabled after collision a with a semi-trailer truck seven years ago. After she was awarded $1 million as part of the settlement ($417,000 after legal fees) with the trucking company, Wal-Mart subsequently sued her for the $470,000 it paid for her medical expenses.

Seriously, it sued her. And won.

The communications person I spoke to said he could not discuss any plans the company may or may not be taking to deal with the media inquires it was getting about Ms. Shank. He promised to send me the statement the company was regurgitating to all of the news outlets. It never came but I'm sure it was loaded with a ton PR speak about how it was the company's right to sue her and that it really felt bad about leaving Ms. Shank with no money despite the fact that she requires 24 hour care.

Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC's Countdown, promised to rage about it every night until Wal-Mart gave back the money, and Anderson Cooper reported it on nightly as well. Hardly a stranger to bad PR, it looked as if the company would do what it normally does, maintain its stance and come out looking incredibly horrible.

But it appears that this level of heartlessness was too much for Wal-Mart to handle.

Last night, it was announced that the company had told the family it could keep the money. And when I checked my e-mail this morning I had a message from David Tovar, senior director, media relations at Wal-Mart that included the company's statement on the matter:
"Occasionally others help us step back and look at a situation in a different way. This is one of those times. We have all been moved by Ms. Shank's extraordinary situation. Our current plan doesn't give us much flexibility, so we began reviewing the guidelines for the trust that pays medical costs for our associates and their family members.

We wanted to understand the ongoing impact of any potential changes to the trust, and ensure that any action we take is in the best interests of our associates and their family members who participate in and contribute to our plan. We have decided to modify our plan to allow us more discretion for individual cases, and are in the final stages of working out the details.

Wal-Mart will not seek any reimbursement for the money already spent on Ms. Shank's care, and we will work with the family to ensure the remaining amounts in the trust can be used for her ongoing care.

We are sorry for any additional stress this has put on the Shank family."
Something tells me this wasn't the statement I would have received from the company last week.
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