The Walgreens company, the country’s largest drugstore chain, calls itself modestly “the pharmacy all others are measured by and one of the most respected American corporations.” But this week in Los Angeles, a jury tarnished some of the respect of this chainstore with nearly 6,900 stores across America. A Los Angeles jury awarded $2.1 million to Alicia Benham, who says she was falsely arrested more than three years ago by two Walgreens security guards, and sexually harassed. “My client feels vindicated,” the plaintiff’s attorney told the Associated Press. “It took a long time and it’s been an extremely traumatic event for her.” The company’s formal response to the jury’s decision? “We’re deeply disappointed and quite frankly shocked by the verdict,” a Walgreens spokesman said, offering no apology or sympathy to Benham. According to the details filed in the lawsuit, Benham and a friend went to Walgreens to return 9 bottles of a diet drink to the store in April of 2004. Two Walgreens security guards “terrorized them,” detaining them against their will in separate rooms with no windows. One of the plaintiffs, Benham’s friend, reached a confidential settlement with Walgreens, but Benham took her case to the jury. Named as defendants in the lawsuit were Walgreens, S&J Security Investigation Inc. and one of the security guards, Omar Ray. The second security guard got away completely, and was never found. According to Benham, one of the security guards told her “how hot she looked and that she could work this out if she wanted to get her friend released. ” Benham said she worried “she was going to be sexually assaulted.” The security guards pressed Benham for private information about herself, including her phone number. She claims that security guards smashed her cell phone against a wall, but she still managed to call for help when the guards left her alone in the room. When the guards realized she had called the police, they told Benham she would be going to jail. The guards made a “citizen’s arrest,” and when police arrived, the guards said Benham had shop-lifted the 9 drinks. According to the AP account of the incident, one of the guards told a police officer that if Benham had “just given him her phone number, he would have let her go.”
It turns out that Walgreens apparently did not do a criminal background check on the workers assigned to this store by S&J Security. Benham’s lawsuit notes that Omar Ray had been arrested many times, included once in 1997 for assault, and again in 2003 for intent to commit prostitution. In 2003, he was convicted of a felony possession of cocaine base, possession of marijuana for sale and for carrying a loaded firearm in 2003, the lawsuit said. Walgreens says it is “committed to improving our customers’ lives across America.” Yet neither Walgreens, nor the security company had any public comment on the verdict, except that the retailer was “disappointed” and “shocked” by the jury’s decision. The retailer says it serves over 5 million customers daily, but Alicia Benham is not likely to be one of them. Walgreens stock, by the way, hit a 52 week low at the end of November at $36.59.