Important Court Case May Define Limits of Free Grocery Store Samples

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Freedom isn't free, and neither are the samples, apparently. Photo: iStockphoto

When it comes to eating samples at the supermarket, how many is too many? What's the approximate threshold for salami slices? Is there a cutoff point for cheese cubes on toothpicks? A 68-year-old Gem Lake, Minnesota, retiree who alleges he was "jumped, kicked and beaten" by police officers and store security after he walked off with 1.4 pounds of summer sausage and beef sticks that had been set out as free samples might not actually become the poster boy for pitfalls of supermarket courtesy culture, but he should be. Here's what happened.

Former laboratory machinist Erwin Lingitz moseyed on into a Cub Foods in White Bear Township on April 24, 2010 and proceeded to fill a plastic produce bag with summer sausage. His total haul, gleaned from displays and unattended stations set up throughout the aisles, included:

"14-16 packets of soy sauce"
• 0.61 pounds of summer sausage in a plastic produce bag
• 0.85 pounds of beef stick

As such, Lingitz was followed out of the store and confronted by a security guard who accused him of shoplifting and "pinned him against a stack of water softener salt," according to the Star Tribune. Then Lingitz alleges police officers threw him onto the sidewalk and kicked him in the head and ribs.

Police contend that Lingitz resisted arrest; Lingitz's lawyers contend that because he hadn't committed a felony, nothing about the way he was treated was proportional to suspicions of shoplifting. Exhibit photos accompanying the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court last month, depict the senior citizen with two black eyes, a laceration across his nose, and cuts and bruises. He was later charged with disorderly conduct, interfering with police, and shoplifting, even though all of the food he took was nominally free. Lingitz's suit not only contends that "store personnel regularly solicited plaintiff to take multiple samples," but on the day of his arrest, Lingitz was encouraged to take food back to his wife, who reportedly has mobility issues and waited in the car while he filled a drug prescription. He's seeking $375,000 in damages.

On Monday, a lawyer representing the grocery store's parent company fired back, depicting Lingitz as a serial offender who had previously been warned to cool it on the freebies. On another occasion, says Robyn Johnson, a manager at the store had witnessed Lingitz "filling plastic produce bags with the samples or with 10-20 cookies from the kids' cookie club tray, which specifically limits the offer to one free cookie per child." Johnson also said that Cub employees never allowed Lingitz to take all kinds of beef sticks. No one has yet addressed the soy sauce packets.

No matter what really happened at the Cub Foods in White Bear Township, the case has multiple issues. The surveillance tape of the incident was erased, for example. But regardless of whether you side with Team Cub or Team Erwin, there's something peculiar and wrong about the store's party line that Lingitz "violated societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices," as a means of explaining their actions.

In these heady times of "societal norms" for free samples, it's good we have Larry David to guide our moral perspectives. But really, if limits for free samples are never explicitly set, and there's no one around to say how many is enough, how can a customer be confronted about taking too many?


Cub owner says man who took samples was serial sample hogger [Twin Cities]
Suit against Ramsey County claims excessive force at Cub grocery store [Star Tribune]