April 1st, 2008
07:07 PM ET

Wal-Mart tells brain-damaged woman: Keep the money

Wal-Mart's health plan will not try to recoup benefits paid for the care of former employee Debbie Shank, 52, who suffered severe brain damage in a traffic accident. Watch Randi's report tonight on 360°
Wal-Mart's health plan will not try to recoup benefits paid for the care of former employee Debbie Shank, 52, who suffered severe brain damage in a traffic accident. Watch Randi's report tonight on 360°

Randi Kaye | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Hey there, I have some breaking news to share with you.

Remember Debbie Shank, the brain-damaged woman Wal-Mart had sued. The company was looking to get back money it had paid for her care after a semi-truck had plowed into her minivan eight years ago.

She was working for Wal-Mart, stocking shelves overnight so she could spend more time during the day with her family. The company wanted $470,000 back but only $217,000 is actually left of the money she had won in her own lawsuit against the trucking company. The money had been placed in a trust to provide for her long-term care. A court ruled Wal-Mart was entitled only to the money left in the trust.

You may recall, neither Debbie nor her husband had noticed the fine print when they signed up for Wal-Mart’s health and benefits plan that said if she settles with a third party in a lawsuit, Wal-Mart is entitled to recoup what it had paid for her care.

After my story about her aired on 360° and I blogged about it, the response was overwhelming. Thousands of you wrote to us, vowing to boycott Wal-Mart, with some saying you would “never spend another cent there.” Many of you told me you had called Wal-Mart to complain, while others tried to raise funds to help the family.

Someone started a petition to boycott the company on YouTube and Facebook, with a link to our story. Just a couple of you spoke for Wal-Mart, one noting the company had done nothing illegal.

Well, guess what. Today there was a major development in that story... Wal-Mart decided to let Debbie Shank keep the money. I read the letter sent to Debbie’s husband, Jim Shank, from Wal-Mart Executive Vice President Pat Curran. It reads in part:

“Occasionally, others help us step back and look at a situation in a different way. This is one of those times. We have all been moved by Ms. Shank’s extraordinary situation. As you know, our current plan doesn’t give us much flexibility, so we began reviewing the guidelines for the trust that pays medical costs for our associates and their family members….We have decided to modify our plan to allow us more discretion for individual cases and are in the final stages of working out the details. Meanwhile, we wanted you to know that Wal-Mart will not seek any reimbursement for the money already spent on Ms. Shank’s care, and we will work with you to ensure the remaining amount in the trust can be used for her ongoing care. We are sorry for any addition stress this uncertainty has placed on you and your family.”

Jim Shank, Debbie’s husband, learned of this about noon today. He told me “I thought it was an April Fool’s joke.” I asked him how he felt, and he said, “The pressure of the people got to them.. It’s not only a victory for Debbie but they are going to change their entire policy.” Then he added, “I want to thank the Lord Jesus and I want to thank you and 360 for all you’ve done.. you broke the story for us.”

Jim also said he is thankful to so many of you, too, our viewers, who pushed to get what Jim says is justice for his wife, Debbie.

– Randi Kaye, 360° Correspondent

Comments to the 360° blog are moderated. What does that mean?

Filed under: Randi Kaye • TV • Wal-Mart
soundoff (172 Responses)
  1. Carey Hobart

    hey people, this is how giant corporations are! They become monsters by their huge size and forget the people who make them work and succeed. Their letter to Debbie was perfectly human and nice but the fact is, huge corps are destroying our humanity.

    April 2, 2008 at 9:22 pm |


    April 2, 2008 at 8:22 pm |
  3. Ann Bowers

    I Hope other responses have NOT stopped in regarding this Wal-Mart situation. I am so glad they have decided to allow what this family definitely was really theirs. I know how subrogation means in a situation like this but who is responsible for these laws. People never get all they are awarded in a verdict of any civil case. Attorney's are paid, INSURANCE COMPANIES ARE WAITING TO BE PAID BACK WHAT THEY PAID ON A CLAIM EVEN THOUGH PEOPLE PAY PREMIUMS FOR YEARS AND YEARS AND NEVER FILE A CLAIM EVEN THOUGH THE DAMAGE WAS NOT AT ALL THEIR FAULT AT All. INSURANCE COMPANIES, i.e., Wal-Mart's also lobbies for laws that are passed without people really knowing what is going on. Lobbying for subrogation is a huge practice and for the most part insurance companies and large companies, big business are why people never get the full amount of an award. Wal-Mart does not need this money and the real reason they are letting these people keep this is how it makes them look and what is good for business not out of the goodness of their hearts.

    Wal-Mart was found guilty in a civil suit filed by my husband and myself in late 1995. They were and are guilty! They appealed and we went through a second trial which we had to appeal. We lost two homes due to Wal-Mart's negligence. I would never have believed that company was so unscrupulous and greedy not to mention irresponsible until October 28, 1995 at 3:00 P.M. in the afternoon. My health affected drastically and it is like an ABSOLUTE LINE WAS DRAWN IN OUR LIVES THAT DAY AND THERE IS SO MUCH DOCUMENTION AND MATTER OF PUBLIC RECORDS. It is still so emotional for me to try to tell what they allowed us to go through. They are only looking after their image which is not good in many peoples' minds who have experienced encounters with them on the same lines that we have.

    The money Wal-Mart is allowing the Shanks to keep is not nearly all it will take to help take care of Mrs. Shank's needs for a very long time. We all know what health care costs. They should be trying to help them more in some way instead of taking from them no matter what subrogation laws are or Erisa laws.

    I DO THANK CNN FOR GIVING THIS THE ATTENTION THEY HAVE. Many talk shows, news programs are afraid of speaking out when it comes to Wal-Mart or others in their league. There is fear of repercussions from Wal-Mart. Thank you for giving the AVERAGE PERSON IN THIS COUNTRY HAVE A VOICE AND BE ABLE TO HAVE THEIR VOICES HEARD.

    Ann Bowers

    April 2, 2008 at 8:22 pm |
  4. Traci

    The power of networking the news!
    Go 360 Go ! 🙂
    Keep the news comming!

    April 2, 2008 at 7:57 pm |
  5. Gerry Brott

    The Shank's and their lawyers only won one million dollars in their law suite against the trucking company that hit her car that caused these injuries. Over half of that million dollars went to the lawyer and court cost leaving only $450,000 to take care of Mrs. Shank for the rest of her life. Seems the lawyer a completely inadequate or even an idiot for not going after more money like 3 or 4 millions dollars so that whatever was left over would be enough to take care of Mrs. Shank for the rest of her life. Seems like a malpractice case against the lawyer if you ask me. Maybe the details of the original accident would change my view. What were the details of the accident? Why didn't the lawyers sue for more money than they did? Seem the Shark's have gotten the short end of the stick all the way around from the beginning. Sure would like to more details about this whole situation with the Shank family, their law suite against the trucking company, and the lawyer representing them.

    Great job for shining the spot light on the preditory company that Wal Mart is and always will be. I've never spent a dollar in one. If their business model succeeds eventually no one anywhere will be able to afford to shop in their Chinese goods fortresse business model.

    Buy American! I know it's becoming more difficult everyday.

    Gerry Brott, Kirkland Washington

    April 2, 2008 at 6:16 pm |
  6. Gerry Brott

    This story really touched our hearts. The end result of Wal Mart back down and letting the Stark's keep the money was the right end result. My question is after seeing pictures of the accident that put Mrs. Stark in the condition she is in how is it that they only got the small amount of money they won in court from the trucking company that hit her car? This appears to us that either the lawyer was totally not effective and/or didn't sue for nearly as much money as it appears should have come to the Stark's to keep care of her for the rest of her life, not to mention what was taken away from her husband in lost of his wife the way she used to be. Seems to me the court award/settlement should have been in the millions of dollars. Can you shed some light on the detail fo this case before the the insurance struggle with Wal Mart. Yours Truly, Gerry Brott

    April 2, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
  7. EJ - Ohio

    I hope some of the AC360 staff is planning on taking Randi Kaye out to dinner.

    Just a suggestion!

    April 2, 2008 at 5:15 pm |
  8. Mike Scott

    Hearst would be proud of you.

    April 2, 2008 at 4:20 pm |
  9. zachary

    I'm very very happy that WAL MART decided to have some common sence and a heart and leave this poor family alone. I can't in my mind even try and imag why they would do such a thing?, the son has dided serving In IRAQ, their last and only son left is trying to cope and move on too College/ univesity and the father is trying to take care of his brain dead whife.

    p.s I sent WAL MART a meesge and I told them too have a heart and they I could no longer shop in a place where it treats people the way they did.

    Thank CNN for brodcasting this story!

    Newmarket On, Canada

    zachary sedore

    April 2, 2008 at 4:07 pm |
  10. Saavedra

    What ever happened to honest reporting? The truth being covered?

    CNN/360 bullied Wal-Mart into capitulating. Nevermind that the Shank family lost their case in court, lost their appeal as well...and why did they lose? Because they had no case–but in this POLITICALLY CORRECT world in which we presently live in; it is all about ENTITLEMENT.

    Yes, it is a horrible situation Mrs. Shank is in but she is not entitled to monetary compensation from her employer because of an accident and injuries she sustained elsewhere.

    I find this story absolutely shameful because of the way Wal-Mart was portrayed as the 'bad guys' and the Shank family was portrayed as the; pitiful injured party –entitled to money from a business that was not, if I understand correctly,responsible in any way with the accident that Mrs. Shank experienced in the first place!

    What am I missing here? What is the matter with you AC and your minions? What don't you logically, honestly, truly not understand about this case/story?

    This sort of reporting from AC360 is what I now expect–it is why I now tune into AC360 only to assuage my curiosity over what designer suit and color of tie AC will be wearing –"Keeping Them Honest", what's that got to do with anything?

    This was just shameful reporting.

    April 2, 2008 at 3:40 pm |
  11. Dave

    If Walmart wants to do the right thing they should start a trust fund for her for FIVE million dollars then I might shop there again!!!!!!!!

    April 2, 2008 at 3:39 pm |
  12. K.Love

    I've been boycotting Wal-Mart for the past 6 years for reasons not mentioned in the article. This story made me reaffirm my committment to standing up for those who can't stand for themselves.

    April 2, 2008 at 3:31 pm |
  13. Travis Davidson

    Its pretty bad that it takes Bad Publicity and people to boycott Wal-Mart for them to do the right thing. They should have never went after this family in the first place, this family has suffered enough as it is. My thoughts and prayers are with this family. It just goes to show u that Company's don't care about there Employees they only care about the money they profit. I really hope Wal-Mart pays dearly for this because they deserve it. I think people should still boycott Wal-Mart and show them they done wrong.

    Travis Davidson
    Columbus, Ohio

    April 2, 2008 at 3:12 pm |
  14. kate

    Elation is the word that comes to mind regarding the Shanks and Walmart. Last week my daughter was on spring break from grad school in Illinois, visiting me in Atlanta. We heard the CNN report about Walmart recouping her health care costs. Outrageous! We both got on our laptops and wrote letters to corporate. A day or so later, we got form emails saying basically, "This is our policy and tuff noogies." Gratifying that they reconsidered did the right thing!!!

    April 2, 2008 at 2:38 pm |
  15. Tim O.

    I was shocked, but not really surprised, by the so-called legal expert Toobin's gratuitous and specious assertion that such cases are the consequence of the lack of national health care in this country, i.e. socialized medicine. Of course Medicaid asserts a subrogation interest in related tort claims

    April 2, 2008 at 2:05 pm |
  16. Robert Phillips

    KC and Ted:

    Before you go throwing the attorney under the bus you need to understand how the system REALLY works. To say the "trucking company should just pay b/c they were clearly at fault" is like saying if the Easter Bunny would just bring us all six figure jobs and a big sack of goodies, all of the world's problem's would be solved. It is not reality.

    No trucking company (or any company for that matter) is just going to voluntarily hand over a million bucks. $800 for a fender bender, sure sometimes. A claim that could be worth millions of dollars? Never a chance! Almost always is it not the trucking company who will pay a claim but their insurance carrier. Insurance business model is simply take in premiums and pay out as little as possible. This is not achieved by casually paying a million dollar claim b/c “it is clear” they should. No case is clear. No matter how egregious fault it, they will find some engineer to say Ms. Shank was somehow at fault. Then Ms. Shank’s attorney must hire an engineer at $350/hr. Then the insurance company will find a neurosurgeon to say her injuries are not severe and not permanent. So then Ms. Shank’s attorney must hire a neurosurgeon at $900/hr to say otherwise. This just goes on and on until finally the trucking/insurance company realizes you can fight them toe to toe.

    If you do not hire an attorney (or even one who can bankroll a case like this) the trucking company or insurance company will NEVER settle and if you do not have a team of expensive experts the defense can move to have your case thrown out.

    RE: the $600k. No lawyer is ever going to charge a 60%. The Shanks could easily find other lawyers to take the case on a smaller fee. So where is the rest of the money? Well, for one, tens of thousands (We had a trucking last month case that we had $140k in litigation/expert costs) went out in expert and litigation costs (remember each side pays their own litigation costs). Next just b/c Wal Mart Health insurance paid $470k for medical bills does NOT mean that was all of the bills. Often they will only pay 80%. That means the Shank’s bill was closer to $600-700k.

    Guess what? The HOSPITAL gets to sue for the remainder of that money owed to them. Add up all these costs which ALL have to come out of the settlement and the numbers now make sense.

    Why did lawyer only settle for $1million? Federal Motor Carrier act requires that 18 wheelers ONLY have to carry $1million in coverage. If the trucking company is in bankruptcy, has its assets under a mortgage, etc, there is NO OTHER MONEY TO GET. Thank your republican Congress for allowing trucking companies, which can kill and maim numerous people in one crash, to have this minimal amount of coverage.

    And while you are at it, thank your republican Congress for strengthening ERISA (type of health insurance plan) to where they can legally do what they did to the Shanks.

    Oh, and still while you are at it, also thank them so when YOUR ERISA health plan denies paying for a life saving treatment improperly, you can ONLY sue them for the costs of that treatment. (i.e., after they unreasonably refused to pay for your life saving treatment, you sue them for the improper denial, then you die, then win your family wins in court, they get to say, “oh, well, here is the little bit of money for that treatment we SHOULD have paid for three years ago.) Which of course will do your family a lot of good b/c you will long be dead by the time it takes three years to get through the court system.

    It is never as simple as it appears.

    April 2, 2008 at 1:38 pm |
  17. Kim

    This story bothers me. I am glad Wal*Mart did a nice thing in the end. But I felt that portraying the big store as an evil Goliath was wrong.

    The only "winner" in this piece was the Shank's attorney. He took more than half of the awarded money and didn't work with the Shanks when it looked like they'd lost all their legal battles.

    Here's a similar, but not so heartbreaking example: I have a small condominium on a second floor. Due to a plumbing problem that was the fault of the builder, the downstairs unit had some ceiling damage. The owner of that unit said he was going to sue me, because his lawyer said it would be insurance company that he'd get the money from, so it wouldn't affect me.

    That 's just not true. Every single lawsuit and lawsuit award affects us all - why do you think insurance costs are so high? It's because of all of the lawyers who "win" settlements for their clients, and then take 50% or more of the award. When companies have to add in settlements and legal fees to their costs of providing us with insurance, no wonder they don't offer proper healthcare.

    April 2, 2008 at 1:04 pm |
  18. Tracy M. McGrady

    Randi–This should make you feel so proud. You have done a great thing for this family. Thanks for getting the word out about this case so that we could all put pressure on Wal-Mart to do the right thing. Had it not been for your report on 360, I would not have known about this.

    April 2, 2008 at 12:52 pm |
  19. renee h.

    it is good to know that journalism done right can still make a difference. i was moved by the story about debbie when it aired, and i am glad to see so many others were as well. it seems in this case justice was served in the proper way, thanks to the interest of a good journalistic team. good job 360!!

    April 2, 2008 at 12:38 pm |
  20. Rebecca

    First of all, walmart is the most un-american thing in america. How cold of them to treat this woman like this. I don't shop there to begin with, but this certainly sealed the deal for me. I will never shop there. They have put too many americans with decent jobs out of work... and provided too many low paying jobs.

    They did this to counter the negative press. There is no other reason that they "changed their minds".

    April 2, 2008 at 12:30 pm |
  21. Teresa

    Way to go Randi. You go girl, great reporting

    April 2, 2008 at 12:20 pm |
  22. Slater

    Notwithstanding that this was a sad story, these folks got really lucky. It is a perfect example of the ignorance Americans claim when referring to the signing of contracts and legal documents.

    As a person in the legal field with more experience than I want to admit with such ignorance (because it would be acknowledging that the country I live in is more ignorant than educated), I have to say that a story like this should benefit those who saw it and are ignorant of the fact that they, too, signed such an agreement with their country.

    Shame on us. Understand, by the way, that such agreements work hand in hand with the regulation of health insurance costs. If every person in the country who had such an accident collected from the insurance company and then sued for those costs, (which by the way they did not pay because a second party insurance company covered them), health insurance premiums, health care and litigation costs related to them would skyrocket.

    So read everything you sign. If you do not understand it, by law the "party of the first part" must explain it to you. If you sign things without regard for the fact that contracts were created in this country to be enforceable if need be, then shame on you for your magical thinking that somehow you are not really accountable for your signature .

    April 2, 2008 at 12:07 pm |
1 2 3 4