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American Stores Co. v. Byrd

Decided: May 22, 1962.

AMERICAN STORES COMPANY
v.
BYRD



Appeal from the Circuit Court for Somerset County; Duer, J.

Brune, C. J., and Henderson, Hammond, Horney and Marbury, JJ. Horney, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

Horney

This appeal is from a judgment for $25,000 entered by the Circuit Court for Somerset County in favor of Helen Cox Byrd (plaintiff or customer) against the American Stores Company (defendant) on the verdict of a jury in an action for slander.

On the afternoon of October 4, 1960, the customer entered the store of the defendant in Princess Anne accompanied by her twin daughters. Her son remained in the parked automobile. She purchased a gallon of milk and two cans of baked beans and paid for them. While she was waiting for her change and packaging of the purchases, the store manager (Ralph W. Pilchard) approached the check-out-counter, spoke to the customer (whom he had known for a number of years) and gave the cashier (Edna E. Payne) some money which, absent-mindedly, she put in the middle or stamp drawer of the cash register. After being checked out, the customer left the store and was proceeding toward the automobile when the store manager, having been informed by the cashier that the money he had given her could not be found, hurried out of the store and "hollered" to the customer. In a loud and angry tone of voice, and in the presence of her children and the town police officer (John D. Ford) and other persons on the street, the store manager demanded to know whether she had gotten or picked up the money that he had placed on the counter.

The original declaration alleged that the words, actions and conduct of the store manager, in asking the customer "did you get the $117 that was on the counter" and that "it was gone" and by demanding to examine the package containing the purchases and to look into her pocketbook and wallet, were slanderous per se and in fact charged that the customer had committed larceny. Subsequently, for the reason that the "innuendo explaining the words spoken was omitted by inadvertence," the plaintiff sought and was permitted to amend the declaration. In the amended declaration, the plaintiff alleged that the store manager "did intend to and mean to charge" that the customer had committed larceny and that the words, actions and conduct of the manager were slanderous per se. The plaintiff further alleged that the charge was false and malicious; that it had been overheard by numerous people; that theretofore she had enjoyed a good reputation for honesty and integrity; and that as a result of the charge she had been brought into public infamy and disgrace and had suffered humiliation and anxiety, and was otherwise damaged. But she did not allege any special damages that she had suffered as a result of the incident. No demand was made for a bill of particulars. Nor was there a demurrer to either the original or amended declarations. The defendant in its "answer," however, besides setting forth the usual general issue pleas, alleged that the colloquium, together with the averred slanderous words, did not constitute slander or was not slanderous per se; and that the allegation in the amended declaration to the effect that the words spoken by the store manager did intend to and mean to charge the plaintiff with a felony, was an erroneous conclusion of law and was not supported by the facts.

According to the story the plaintiff-customer related at the trial, this is what was said and done:

(Manager): "Just a minute? * * * Did you pick up that money that was on the counter?"

(Customer): "No. Mrs. Payne put my change in my hand."

(Manager): "I'm not talking about that. * * * I'm talking about the money that I laid on the counter."

(Customer): "No, I did not."

(Manager): "Are you sure?"

(Customer): "I'm sure I didn't pick up any money."

(Manager): "It's funny. * * * The money, you were there when I put the money down. * * * And when you walked out we can't find the money."

(Customer): "Well, * * * I'm sorry."

(Manager): "Well, we just can't find it."

(Customer): "Mrs. Payne put the money in the drawer."

(Manager): "She did not. We looked."

(Customer): "Well, I'm sorry. I don't know nothing else."

(Manager): "Where's your packages?"

(Customer): "The package is on the front seat. The milk is in the back seat."

The manager went to the left front window of the automobile and asked the son (Johnnie) for the package. Johnnie, who had just looked in the package did not give it to him, but he told him that ...


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