March 25th, 2008
04:41 PM ET

Brain-damaged woman at center of Wal-Mart suit

Debbie Shank, 52, has severe brain damage after a traffic accident in May 2000... Jim Shank, 54, works two jobs and divorced his wife so she'd receive more money from Medicaid.

JACKSON, Missouri (CNN) - Debbie Shank breaks down in tears every time she's told that her 18-year-old son, Jeremy, was killed in Iraq.

Even though the 52-year-old mother of three attended her son's funeral - she continues to ask how he's doing. When her family reminds her that he's dead - she weeps as if hearing the news for the first time.

Shank suffered severe brain damage after a traffic accident nearly eight years ago that robbed her of much of her short-term memory and left her in a wheelchair and living in a nursing home.

It was the beginning of a series of battles - both personal and legal - that loomed for Shank and her family. One of their biggest was with Wal-Mart's health plan.


Filed under: Randi Kaye • Wal-Mart
soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Jen

    this is exactly what's wrong with society today- hasn't anyone ever heard of PAY IT FORWARD? we're supposed to be the greatest country in the world- and something like this happens every day. it's all about money and greed. walmart needs to back off and give a hardworking family a break.

    March 25, 2008 at 8:12 pm |
  2. Jan from Wood Dale, IL

    My sympathy does go out to this family. However, usually one of the first things their lawyers should have done was check to see if the medical bills WalMart had paid would have to be paid back. In lawsuits like these, attorneys would normally look at everything that would affect the woman's future, including loss of income, long-term care costs, etc. The family also should have known what their attorney fees would be upfront. This might be a case where they settled for less than what they might have received from the trucking company. I'd be interested in hearing Jeffrey Toobin's take on this.

    March 25, 2008 at 7:52 pm |
  3. EJ - Ohio

    This woman has the short term memory issue, so why keep telling her over and over again that her son is dead? If someone has a condition like that, wouldn't it be more humane to tell her that he is in Iraq and that he is is doing ok?

    I don't understand how she has to hear this over and over again knowing that she will forget it in a few minutes and when she hears it again its hitting her like its the first time.

    What do experts and psychologists say about something like this? Is it really best to keep telling this woman her son is dead again and again? Can't something happen to a person's brain/mind when they continuously hear something as distressing as a child dying (and its like hearing it the 1st time each time)?

    Hopefully the publicity of this story will make Walmart think twice about suing her.

    March 25, 2008 at 7:48 pm |
  4. Bill

    Nearly all employer-provided health care plans give the health care plan the right to be reimbursed for the payments it made if the injured employee recovers money from the person or entity who caused the injury ( in this case, the trucking company). Wal-mart is far from being unique. In fact, it's the norm. And it's not in fine print. It's in every employee's manual and health care booklet – you know, the materials most people just don't take the time to read "cuz it's not important , interesting, or will never apply to them". By having the ability to recoup payments, the insurance coverage is much more affordable for both the company AND the employee. It helps keep the premium payment low for all employees!. The problem in this case is that the woman's attorney failed to do a number of things. From day one, he knew or should have known of the health plan's right to seek repayment, and should have negotiated a release or reduction early in the litigation. He should have structured the settlement with the trucking company via the use of annuities that pay over time. He should have set up a medical needs trust for the woman. He should have worded the release to indicate the settlement was not for past medical expenses, but only for pain, sufferring, loss of enjoyment of life, and future medical care. I'm not impressed by the "newsworthiness" of this article. It singles out Wal-mart for bad publicity when this situation exists every week in the legal profession across the U.S involving school districts, counties, and hundreds of corporations. I suspect if the reporter checks her own employer-provided health care plan she will find the same provisions. And no, I'm not an employee or fan of Wal-mart.

    March 25, 2008 at 7:27 pm |
  5. Fred Klinger

    CNN and Randi Kaye their anchor who wrote this story need to be held accountable. They intentionally twisted the story to paint a hate picture of Wal-Mart and sell their story. This type of despicable behavior will only stop if the viewers of CNN begin to insist upon truthful reporting. The truth if the story was properly reported would read " Following a serious accident the trucking firm which struck Debbie Shank paid her $700,000 in a court settlement. After attorney fees and medical expense only $217,000 was left over for Debbie Shank and her family. Something is wrong with our legal system that would allow such windfall for attorneys in accident cases."

    March 25, 2008 at 7:26 pm |
  6. Suzie

    This is heartbreaking. Whatever happened to doing the right thing? And having some compassion. Maybe that is an old fashioned word in our society. We do not shop at Walmart, and will continue the policy. It's amazing to see the greed. How much does the Walton family need? Can't they spare a little?

    March 25, 2008 at 7:23 pm |
  7. Barb

    Another reason to be reminded to pull out of the drawer or ask for a copy of your summary of plan benefits and read it thoroughly- many self insured plans require that any third party settlements reimburse them for medical claims that were paid out of the pool of money that all employees of that company contribute in the form of premiums. The Shanks should certainly sue their money grubbing attorney for not fully researching their potential liability and taking such a huge fee. And although my heart goes out to them for their circumstance and recent loss, assuming they could accept a million $ settlement and count on the Walmart employees to risk their own medical plan future was unreasonable. I would think that Walmart could make some conciliatory gesture in the form of a donation or grant. I am not a big fan of Walmart but it seems eaasy once again to make them the hated billion dollar giant . And I hope I never have to find out how much my husband loves me in a similar circumstance by divorcing me so he can keep some of the money thats left- if Mrs Shank worked enough quarters she would certainly qualify for Soc Sec disability or other assistance -even as a married couple. It's hard to imagine the only recourse is to divorce so another public funded agency can take care of her .It may be a blessing that she cant remember.

    March 25, 2008 at 7:21 pm |
  8. Susan C. Proctor

    I am absolutely disgusted. WalMart should be ashamed of their behavior. A dedicated employee who had the misfortune to suffer an injury that will impact her life forever and all they can think after their 90 million dollar of profit is how can we get more. To hell with the staff they served them. I am disgusted and will never support WalMart again.

    March 25, 2008 at 7:20 pm |
  9. walter

    Walmart's greed has stooped to new lows...not only have they brow beat American companies into pricing that ultimately forced them to lay off American workers (Valasic, Schwinn) but now, they go after their own workers! Am I shocked? No. Will I shop at Walmart? Not now, not ever...may the vermin of the field eat and puke Sam Waltons rotting body........

    March 25, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  10. james

    Using the Wal-Mart stragey of moving into small towns and "suppling quality jobs and benefits" to the small town folks, one has to wonder, by having this clause in their health care plan aren't they forcing people who want to have some type of health care coverage to sell off their rights to get it? How is this legal? People should not be required to sell their rights to damages due to them because of the fault of others. The lawyers and the health care insurers namely Wal-mart this time and others with similar loopholes should not exist. Just another indicator of how much we have lost in this country due to bad leadership and no protection under the law unless you are rich enough to afford it. God help us all.

    March 25, 2008 at 7:10 pm |
  11. smeagol

    Wal Mart provides a great service to consumers that unionized companies just cant' – low prices. They are actually helping people who aren't well off by giving them the freedom to buy goods at v. low prices. You can get a lot for your money at Wal Mart. The people who work at WalMart have a choice to work elsewhere, but they have the freedom to work there and they choose to work there. WalMart's medical benefits are in black and white, just like every other company in the US. You can't change the medical benefits to suit your situation. The benefits are what they are. If it was up to unions, the company would be 'forced' to pay millions and millions every time one of these situations arises and the price of a lawn chair at Wal Mart would be $50 instead of $15which would make WalMart like every other American company – bloated, over-unionized and inefficient. Americans have the freedom not to shop there as well, and there's enough business for WalMart to still flourish even without every American agreeing with their policies.

    March 25, 2008 at 7:00 pm |
  12. Carol Hammac

    Shame, shame on walmart. I will never shop there again! All they want is to make more and more money. How much is enough for them? Mr. Cooper please help this poor man!

    March 25, 2008 at 6:48 pm |
  13. Bill

    The rich get richer,lawyersand insurance companies are expected to pick your pockets they've been doing it for years.But a store that wants to come into all small and large communities and advertise that they're your friendly neighbors ,this is very unexpected.my family will not be spending our dollars at Walmart and I,m urging everyone to join us.

    March 25, 2008 at 6:47 pm |
  14. Greg

    This is simply shameful. I will not buy another item at Wal-Mart unless they give this woman's family an apology and the money back that they took from these people and any legal fees that it cost them.

    March 25, 2008 at 6:32 pm |
  15. Madison

    Walmart has a reputation for poor employee treatment, but this is over the top even for them. I hope enough of us join in a boycott so they can see this is not acceptable behavior. Really horrible.

    March 25, 2008 at 6:20 pm |
  16. Tammy

    I just returned from that God awful place, and if they hadn't put other better but more expensive local stores out of business in my small community, I'd be shopping elsewhere. The corporation has always been about the dollar, not customers or workers. This case pitifully proves the point further. I know what long-term care of someone costs. I helped my dad with my mom for over three years, and now I am helping him with his mom (the amounts are unreal even with good insurance and money to spend on meds, supplies, nurses, housekeepers, doctors, hospitals, attendants, and assisted living for my grandma). Healthcare needs to be overhauled. It's too costly for everyone, especially those who will use it most (chronically ill or permanently injured people). The insurance industries also need to be overhauled. A service that is supposed to help those in need apparently is more concerned about the dollar than doing their jobs. That is criminal in my opinion. I hope things work out for this couple. I wouldn't bet money on Hell Mart changing its policies anytime soon, though.

    March 25, 2008 at 6:20 pm |
  17. nigel tufnel

    Why do these suits always involve co's with very deep pockets? It's because people think they can get more and more and more. Im sory for the result of the accident, but you should know your insurance. No one else is going to know it for you

    March 25, 2008 at 6:14 pm |
  18. uncle leo

    Good point Michael ONeill.

    The award was equal to 48 YEARS of salary. Think about that.

    March 25, 2008 at 6:12 pm |
  19. Sheri Godwin

    This is typical of Wal-Mart/Sam's Club. I know of a person who was severly hurt on their property, won the suit in court but was informed by Walmart lawyers that they simply would not pay. If this was on your property or mine, we would not be able to get away with this.

    March 25, 2008 at 6:06 pm |
  20. Brent

    Besides standing in line to check myself out and bag my own goods, I will treat Wal-Mart as I do Citgo I only go in to use the facilities and leave. Brent

    March 25, 2008 at 6:06 pm |
  21. Susie, Capistrano Beach

    Wal-Mart has a choice to go after this money or not...under the subrogation clause. They simply could choose to not claim reimbursement. They are just selfish, greedy and do not care about anything but the bottom line.
    I cannot understand why people shop there...I would choose Target 10 times over this store.
    These people need the money to care for her. Cooper you have the ability to make it happen with the media coverage...and I hope you do.

    March 25, 2008 at 6:04 pm |
  22. Jolene

    It sounds to me like Wal-Mart is more about slashing this family than slashing their everyday low prices. Tragedies do make families stronger but this family sure has endured their share. My thoughts and prayers are with the family. I just sent an email to Wal-mart requesting them to reconsider their decision. For what it’s worth….

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    March 25, 2008 at 5:58 pm |
  23. Miles

    Think of the goodwill that a huge company with painfully clumsy public relations could generate by forgiving the debt and maybe even providing additional help to a family who sacrificed a son to help keep it in business. I’ll be waiting to hear the news. And I’ll let any further purchases from this cold-hearted giant wait until I do hear it.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:57 pm |
  24. Michael ONeill

    Interesting way to look at what appears to be a tragedy.

    $10 an hour
    40 hours a week
    $400 dollars a week
    52 weeks in a year
    $20,800 dollars a year
    $1,000,000 award
    48.08 Years needed to work to earn amount equal to settlement

    This does not account for time value of money and the fact that the settlement is not taxed

    March 25, 2008 at 5:56 pm |
  25. raven

    I agree with DAVE above.

    Attorneys who sometimes come away w/ millions in malpractice or accident lawsuits seem to not be vilified the way BIG CORPORATIONS do. the Big Corporation provides jobs and low priced goods, are they also taking care of us now from cradle to grave?>

    March 25, 2008 at 5:51 pm |
  26. Jackie Bernard

    All done with Wal-Mart. Such a shame too, since I spend an average of around $200.00 monthly there. That is until now.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:47 pm |
  27. xtina

    my company has a "catastrophic fund" to which employees donate in the form of a small deduction every two wks. of your chosen amount . You may never need it, but if you have a hardship or yr insurance runs out, you apply to the board for a one-time paymt out of the community fund. It's constantly being replenished and used.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:46 pm |
  28. Eric

    Yet another reason to not frequent the soul sucking mega-corp. Here's a word for Wal-Mart, "Target."

    March 25, 2008 at 5:38 pm |
  29. Fred

    This article demonstrates how Walmat treats it's employees who have clearly given more than most would ever choose to give for their country. This shows the dark side of Walmart, which chooses to focus only on the bottom line. They have abandoned all hope of any corporate responsibility for the society which they milk for every last dime. All the while, they purchase a vast majority of their product from China and either directly or indirectly support the oppressive regime there. What ever happened to doing the right thing? This article demonstrates how corporations have made the term honor a term which can only be read in history books. Shame on them! I will make sure I forward this to my friends and family to not buy their products from Walmart anymore.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:33 pm |
  30. Holly

    Walmart's insurance company may need to recoup their losses, but there is nothing stopping Walmart Corp. from making a "charitable" donation to Debbie to balance this out. Maybe all this negative publicity will nudge them in the right direction.

    Walmart is closer, but Target is only a couple blocks farther away, so not a problem for me to switch where I shop...

    March 25, 2008 at 5:33 pm |
  31. Tim

    As if people needed another reason to stop shopping at Wal-Mart, they are now showing their true colors. For years they have beaten good American manufacturing businesses into the ground with their purchasing practices forcing many plant closings and job losses. Sure... their stuff is cheap, but they are a big reason that many communities can't afford to shop anywhere else.
    Don't be fooled by walmart's ads claiming to be good for the neighborhood. Their practices of essentially preventing supplier profits, under paying and disputing employee benefits, and employing illegal immigrants all while driving hometown folks out of business shows their true colors.
    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for corporate profits. But I'm also in favor of business ethics.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:31 pm |
  32. Kent, Illinois

    It would be a good idea for WalMart to make a good will gesture and release her from this financial debaucle. Whether WalMart is right or wrong the public sees it as wrong. Get over yourself WalMart......Do the right thing.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:30 pm |
  33. KAT

    This makes me ill. WalMart has NO need for this money, and in fact, should in goodwill, even offer to give this family MORE money as to live in a normal manner. A husband recovering from cancer, working two (2) jobs, caring for his now 'former' wife, because of our 'GREAT' national healthcare terms, is a disgrace, not only for Walmart, but, for the nation. The children of 'Mr.Walmart' are ALL on the BILLIONAIRES list. For Walmart spokesman, Mr.'SMILEY, to say "this is done out of fairness to all associates who contribute to, and benefit from, the plan." is also so disgusting. I would Love to see the statistics on how many of their other associates have had endure this type of hardship. And of course, the 'FINE PRINT' written in the medical plan, is dishonest,deceiving, and completely unfair to all Associates. We ALL know how hard Walmart Associates work to keep this company able to report 3rd quarter sales of 90 BILLION, this is a HUGE slap at each and every employee. I already HATE to have to go to WALMART, but now, it will make me even sicker to spend one more penny in that store. Walmart should hang their heads in SHAME. That includes the Supreme Court also. In honor of their young couragous DEAD hero child, I would love to see Walmart to stand up and do the right thing, however, sadly, this will never happen. My prayers and blessings to the Shank family.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:27 pm |
  34. nobama

    Lots of companies don't have all encompassing comprehensive coverage. Why single out WalMart?

    March 25, 2008 at 5:24 pm |
  35. ASmith

    Wal-Mart just gave me another reason not to shop at their stores.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:22 pm |
  36. Amanda

    If they are trying to make this about "fairness to all associates who contribute to, and benefit from the plan, according to Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley", then why not give the associates at that store the opportunity to decide what should happen. I understand all too well about fine print with health insurance. I work in health insurance billing. Every day I learn something new about the fine print on the thousands of different policies that are out there. I bet if the employees were given the option to make those types of decisions, their health insurance rates would skyrocket. It is just ridiculous to turn this into something it's not. This is not about the Wal-Mart employees. This is about finding a loop hole to make back some money a large corporation agreed to put out in the first place. ironicly, Wal-Mart has probably spent just as much in legal fees as they will be getting back from this helpless woman!

    March 25, 2008 at 5:18 pm |
  37. Neicy

    WOW, what is amazingly funny here is that Wal-Mart is being listed as the money-grubbers. Not the attorney's that did not fight for additional money to cover this woman's need or the fact that the attorney's admit that THEY contacted Wal-Mart which meant that they should have read the fine print and know what to expect.

    The Shanks need to sue the attorney firm for malpractice. Not only did they not properly secure Debbie's future financially, they failed to read the fine print in her health plan and make sure that they provided for a settlement that would not financially destroy the family.

    Shame on the attorneys that are attempting to blame Wal-Mart who is only mentioned because they at one time employed her.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:17 pm |
  38. Doug Pierson Tohatchi, NM

    There is a very old Buddhist saying: "This is because that is and this is not because this is not". It refers to the suffering in the world. Walmart as many other corporations is indifferent to the pain and suffering. But then everything does come around. But in the meantime the Shanks suffer. It is just not right.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:16 pm |
  39. Diane Cox

    This is a very sad story. How dare a huge company, with a bad history of treating their employees badly, take away from such a needy family. One of their own employees. It seems that she is one who did contribute to the plan and deserves to benefit from it as Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley stated. I just wish more people would stop shopping at the Walton's store. The amount of money they are trying to take back is pocket change to the Waltons.
    This is one of many reasons I do not shop at Wal-Mart. There is one 5 minutes from my home, but I will drive 30 miles just to shop at Target or Longs.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:14 pm |
  40. Cindy

    It is really ridiculous that a giant like Wal-Mart would sue someone for money that they obviously need to survive. That is nothing but pure greed in my opinion.

    Cynthia, Covington, Ga.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:13 pm |
  41. Kellie

    Explain to me how we as a country have companies like walmart that forget where they started. I don't think they always had millions and in this case $90 billion profit. And we wonder why people are the way they are- WALMART could have done some great PR work and done the right thing. Well they didn't they decided to take from yet another family.

    I rarely shop there but as of today I will never step foot in one of those stores again nor spend a dime. If they were the last store around I would rather grow my own food- I wonder how they sleep at night.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:12 pm |
  42. Ken Stouffer

    Wow. 90 Billion in profits and they still see the need to take from this family. I'm amazed. As if there weren't enough reasons to dislike the neighborhood abcess that is Wal-Mart, they go and pull a move like this. It certainly reinforces my decision to spend my money elsewhere.

    March 25, 2008 at 5:02 pm |
  43. Lauren

    Walmart technically does deserve the money but please don't say that an exemption can't be made. That's absolutely ridiculous. Murders, tax evadors, drug dealers, and other criminals get off all the time for technicalities, so I am sure there is a loop hole that would allow Walmart to let the poor women and her family keep the money. I mean how heartless are they, the pour man had to divorce his wife in order for them to receive a little more money for living expenses. The cost of living continues to rise and now Walmart is knowingly putting this family in hardship and utimately bankruptcy and for what... so the execs can go on another vacation?

    March 25, 2008 at 4:57 pm |
  44. dave

    Reprehensible what Wal-Mart is doing to this lady. They don't need the money and they are not compelled to sue her. What employees would complain about this?

    March 25, 2008 at 4:55 pm |
  45. Bert

    Yes. It's unbelievably sad. Walmart has that right, But they should make an exception here and show they have a heart. I'm sure none of their associates would mind.

    March 25, 2008 at 4:55 pm |
  46. Tamika

    Can u imagine not reliving over and over that tragedy. I am tearing up thinking about her hearing it again and again.

    March 25, 2008 at 4:54 pm |
  47. michelle

    Why are her attorneys demanding Wal-Mart to back off? It seems that they themselves took more than $500,000 from her settlement. Why don't they agree to reduce their fees and to give her back some of her money?

    March 25, 2008 at 4:51 pm |
  48. Melissa

    This type of treatment is unbelievable. Why bother to get health insurance if they are going to sue you to get money back? Walmart has this whole "Save money. Live Better." slogan, but they have just robbed this woman and her family of any possibility of living better. It is obvious that Walmart cares nothing about its employees...it is about the almighty dollar.

    There are far more nicer and better places to shop than Walmart and I hope that others will join me in boycotting such a horrible place.

    March 25, 2008 at 4:51 pm |
  49. DAve

    If the settlement with the trucking company was $1million, where did the remaining roughly $600 thousand go ? ATTORNEY FEES. I don't see anyone writing up a story about the attorney giving up any of his fee for this poor family. Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending Wal-Mart, but lets look at all sides of the story here. Maybe they have a malpractice case against the attorney for not suing for enough money to cover the repayment of costs to the insurance plan. He should have read the fine print... that's how he makes a living.

    March 25, 2008 at 4:50 pm |
  50. Jenn

    My family, who lives in the area, are familiar with the case, especially my step-mother who works for the Wal-mart in Perryville. It concerns me as I would hate for her to be stuck in the same situation because Wal-mart doesn't take the time to fully inform their employees about their health-care plan and then comes back and does something like this. I wasn't a huge fan of Wal-mart to begin with, I think, believe it or not, my opinion has just gotten worse.

    March 25, 2008 at 4:50 pm |
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