Stella Case No. 073, Originally Published: 5 May 2004
Tanisha Torres, 26, stopped frequently at the Radio Shack store at the Airport Plaza mall in Farmingdale, N.Y., to pay her cell phone bill. Torres, from Wyandanch, on Long Island, noticed that her town was listed on her computer-generated receipt from the store as “Crimedanch,” not “Wyndanch.”
The first time, she thought it was a mistake. But it happened again and again, because it was entered into Radio Shack’s computer that way.
Why “Crimedanch”? The moniker is a common nickname for the community among people who know the area — like, say, the cops in town. Wyndanch “is one of our busier areas” for crimes such as drug-dealing and prostitution, confirms Inspector James Rhoads, the commanding officer of the Suffolk police’s precinct that covers the township. “It takes a lot of our attention.”
“I’m not a criminal,” Torres complains. “My son plays on the high school football team.” (Um, yeah, that proves there’s no crime there!) “I was raised there and I am proud of my community.” She says she is “outraged” by having her town’s name mistyped on her receipt. “That’s embarrassing.”
What, she hasn’t heard the joke name before? Sure, she says. But, she complains, “I have to go through this every day. But then I go to make a payment on a bill and it was just the end.”
It’s a good thing to be proud of your home town, to be sure. So did she complain to the store and ask them to correct the entry in their computer? Did she tell Radio Shack she is proud of her town and didn’t appreciate the joke? Certainly not! This is America! One doesn’t complain, one doesn’t ask for corrections, one doesn’t suffer from “outrage” or “embarrassment” — at least not at the hands of some big company with a lot of money. One sues as a first resort.
The store’s manager had no idea the receipt was wrong. When a New York Newsday reporter called manager Bill Sullivan to check after hearing of Torres’ plight, Sullivan called up Torres’ record from the computer and found the joke spelling. He checked to see who entered it that way: it was an employee who was no longer there. A spokeswoman for Radio Shack’s headquarters told the newspaper, “As soon as we were alerted to the situation, we changed it in the system, and immediately rectified the situation.” As simple as that — and as no doubt they would have if Torres had complained to the store in the first place.
So was the store’s action good enough? Nope. Torres had already taken her receipts to attorney Andrew Siben of Bay Shore, who duly filed suit against Radio Shack in New York State Supreme Court.
The suit claims the store was “negligent and reckless in its operation and maintenance of the store and the receipt system, and in the hiring, supervision and monitoring of employees.” It begs unspecified damages to help Torres to get over being “embarrassed, flustered and shamed,” as well as her suffering emotional distress and mental anguish.
All that because the joke spelling “implicitly or explicitly labeled her a criminal,” the suit says. Right: a joke that she acknowledges she hears “every day.” And who had the opinion that Torres is a “criminal”? No one — no one but perhaps the people Torres showed the receipts to herself, and it’s hard to believe even they would do anything but chuckle at the joke.
Nope, Siben says. “Clearly, it is defamatory to Ms. Torres and the entire community. It’s a violation of civil rights to be characterized in a way that infers that everyone from Wyandanch is a criminal.” Oh, yeah, “clearly”! That definitely elevates this from a silly joke to a civil rights issue! So, um, why isn’t it in federal court?
But wait: maybe Siben does have a point. Just consider how a few opportunistic sue-for-anything attorneys leads the public at large to infer all lawyers are slimy money-grubbing criminals! Where should the suit filed in Court of Public Opinion be served on you, Mr. Siben?
- “No Writing Off This Receipt,” Newsday, 4 February 2004.
The only thing I found on searches were blogs being even more vicious in tearing apart the case. Alas it gets categorized as Status Unknown even though I can’t believe any judge would entertain the suit in her courtroom.
This was the #3 case in the 2004 Stella Awards.
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
Mistakes happen. Even jokes happen. But to seethe over it month after month after month rather than just ask that they change it is the recipient’s fault. To then jump straight to a lawsuit doesn’t make it right, it makes it a True Stella Award.
Case #72, about the guy who overbought lottery tickets on a prize-capped game, and then sued when he won, brought a surprising amount of disagreement. (And note this was before the Appeals Court ruled the lower court erred, and reversed the entire case and its award.)
Lewis, a lawyer in Colorado: “I usually agree with you, but this time I am hesitant. Do not forget that the Convenient Food Mart received a cut of each — can we call them ‘worthless’? — extra ticket sold to [plaintiff] Struna. Had he never won, he might never have realized that that poor small businessman, [defendant] Singh, was defrauding him at worst, profiting from Struna’s ignorance at the least. While I think the award was excessive, the legal ruling under Ohio law may be entirely correct. I think the better measure of damages would be the wasted lottery ticket fees paid for the extent of the statute of limitations period, plus perhaps punitive/exemplary damages and attorneys fees (assuming there is a legal basis for the case, of course).”
Jason in Ohio: “It seems to me that retailer knowingly took advantage of an idiot by selling an additional 40 tickets per week that couldn’t possibly be worth anything. Who else is he taking advantage of? This one was a stretch of the good ‘Stella’ name.”
And Anthony, a 2L law student in Ohio: “I wholeheartedly agree with you that store owners shouldn’t have an obligation to ensure that every single customer understands the rules of a lottery game, but this case seems to present a situation where a store owner should have the obligation to ensure that a customer purchasing 40-45 useless tickets per game understands the limitations imposed by the rules. This store owner was knowingly enriching himself at the expense of someone who clearly didn’t understand the rules. We hold vendors of alcoholic beverages responsible for selling alcohol to obviously intoxicated persons, I simply don’t see the difference here.”
Remember the story: the guy was spending about $125,000 per year on those tickets. Doesn’t that pretty much define a “professional” level player (or, to use the correct word in such a case, gambler)? Why should anyone have to “warn” him about his actions? [And then add my analysis in the 2021 Thoughts section, that showed Struna was lucky to have continued after 10 tickets.]
Ethan in Illinois: “It is truly startling, the level of greed exhibited in this case (and this is me being startled after reading TSA since the beginning). This man gets an enormous windfall, but feels that his own stupidity in not understanding the rules is entitles him to ruin the poor man who sold him the ticket! The precedent that this case [sets is] ridiculous. One could sue shop owners when they didn’t win, or didn’t win enough. Should shop owners be required to recite lottery rules to every patron? Should they even be required to know all the legal fine print just to sell tickets? Pointing blame and the litigating common sense (or lack thereof) is exactly what’s wrong this country’s legal system. Enacting laws that ‘protect’ people against their lack of common sense is taking away freedoms that we would normally have. I would much prefer to take my welfare into my own hands than have more restrictions put on what I can and can’t do.”
Too bad, Ethan: that’s exactly what lawyers like Struna’s (and Siben, from today’s case) don’t want you to do. The law needs to be a paternalistic Big Brother that takes care of you, since you are not capable of taking care of yourself — even if you have $125,000 a year to blow on lottery tickets. What does that say about American society? I’m almost ashamed to contemplate it.
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