After tremendous adverse publicity, retail giant Wal-Mart has announced it is dropping its effort to collect over $400,000 in healthcare reimbursement from Debbie Shank, a former employee. Debbie lost much of her memory and ability to communicate or walk in a car crash in May 2000. Her family successfully sued the trucking company involved, and after attorneys’ fees and expenses, the $417,000 from the settlement was put in a trust for Debbie’s care. That’s when Wal-Mart stepped in and sued the Shanks to recover the medical costs. Wal-Mart won the case in court. The story generated a public outcry after it was recently featured on several national news networks and newspaper editorials. We speak with Debbie’s husband, Jim Shank. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: It was a terrible thing. In May of 2000, Debbie Shank was driving home when she made a U-turn on Highway 177 in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri and got broadsided by a semi truck. She suffered a brain injury that took her memory and left her with very little ability to move or communicate. She has lived in a nursing home ever since. Debbie’s medical bills were covered by a health insurance program at Wal-Mart, where she had worked nights stocking shelves.
Debbie’s family later successfully sued the trucking company whose driver was involved in the accident. After attorneys’ fees and expenses, the $417,000 from the settlement was put in a trust for Debbie’s care. That’s when Wal-Mart stepped in and sued the Shanks to recover the medical costs. Wal-Mart won the case in court. Last summer, the family appealed the ruling, but Wal-Mart won. One week later, their eighteen-year-old son, Jeremy, was killed in Iraq while serving in the Army.
Refusing to give up, the family appealed to the Supreme Court. But last month, the high court said it would not hear the case. The family’s financial situation became so dire that last year Debbie’s husband, Jim, divorced her, so she could receive more money from Medicaid.
Debbie’s case generated a public outcry after it was recently featured on several national news networks and in newspaper editorials. Then, yesterday afternoon, Wal-Mart announced it had reversed its decision and said it no longer will seek the money. In a statement, Wal-Mart said, "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. Wal-Mart will not seek any reimbursement for the money already spent on Ms. Shank’s care, and we will work with the family to ensure the remaining amounts in the trust can be used for her ongoing care. We are sorry for any additional stress this has put on the Shank family."
Well, Jim Shank is Debbie’s husband. He joins us now on the phone from Jackson, Missouri. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Jim.
JIM SHANK: Good morning. Thank you for bringing me on.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is a victory for you, Wal-Mart’s statement yesterday afternoon.
JIM SHANK: It’s just not for us; it’s for all the employees of Wal-Mart, also. That’s what makes it even more —-
AMY GOODMAN: Can you -— Jim, can you tell us — I went through the story briefly, but you take us from the beginning, in 2000, to that terrible moment when Debbie was hit by the truck. Take us forward from there.
JIM SHANK: Well, you covered pretty much all of it. It’s just a long, drawn-out battle. After we won the case against the trucking company, we thought everything was pretty well set for a while, even though the — even though our attorney, he estimated her needs would reach over $4 million just to take care of her for the rest of her life.
AMY GOODMAN: How is she functioning now?
JIM SHANK: Pardon me?
AMY GOODMAN: How does she function?
JIM SHANK: She doesn’t. She has to be fed. She has to be — everything has to be taken care of for her. She can speak and communicate, but she has no short-term memory whatsoever. And she knows who we are, and she’s just cognizant enough to realize that she is miserable, and she’s fifty-two, and she’s going to live the rest of her life in a nursing home.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, when you won the money from the trucking company, the more than $400,000 for Debbie’s care, explain what happened. Why did Wal-Mart sue you?
JIM SHANK: Well, there’s a clause in their employment contract that if you recover money in a lawsuit, then they can recover what they’ve paid out in insurance claims. And I wasn’t very aware of it. I didn’t realize what it all meant. And they didn’t do anything for three years, so we figured they were just going to let it go.
AMY GOODMAN: But Wal-Mart doesn’t pay more money; the insurance company does — right? — when someone like Debbie has such — you know, has such high medical bills.
JIM SHANK: Right, well, it comes out of the insurance company’s money, but I don’t know how it all works. How — I know that most companies, the employer pays some, and the workers pay some. So I guess part of the deal between the company and the insurance company to help cover their costs.
AMY GOODMAN: So, after three years, what did Wal-Mart do?
JIM SHANK: Then they filed suit to recover the money. And, well, my attorney and I were sort of amazed that they had waited that long, but that’s the way it went. We were really surprised.
AMY GOODMAN: So when they filed suit and you had the money to take care of Debbie, what happened to that money?
JIM SHANK: It was tied up right away. They froze it in the banking accounts. We couldn’t spend any more of it. And it just sat there.
AMY GOODMAN: So you haven’t had access to that money?
JIM SHANK: No.
AMY GOODMAN: You divorced Debbie last year?
JIM SHANK: Yes, last summer it came through.
AMY GOODMAN: And did that involve financial reasons?
JIM SHANK: Well, there was a myriad of reasons. I think one of the things is that with Medicaid, she could — she’d be eligible for more help being single, because her nursing home bills are just astronomical. And I don’t know what we would have done.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, your divorcing her allows her to get more coverage for medical expenses?
JIM SHANK: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: You lost your son last year in Iraq?
JIM SHANK: Yes, ma’am. That was about the last straw. After that and with everything else that happened, it was just — that was just devastating.
AMY GOODMAN: How old was Jeremy?
JIM SHANK: Eighteen.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did he die?
JIM SHANK: In — I can’t even remember the name of the town. He was relieving his best friend at guard duty in a guard tower, and he was shot by a sniper. He died in his best friend’s arms.
AMY GOODMAN: Does Debbie — does his mother know?
JIM SHANK: It comes and goes with her. Some days, when we visit she’ll say, "Jeremy is dead, right?" And then other days, she’ll go, “Did Jeremy die? Where is Jeremy?" It just — you have to start all over again explaining to her, and then she just breaks down crying, asking why.
AMY GOODMAN: And through all of this, you’ve been dealing with this lawsuit by Wal-Mart and then appealing the decision, losing, and appealing again.
JIM SHANK: It was — it’s just been more than I thought I could handle. It just — only my faith in Jesus has gotten me through. That has to be it, because I’m not strong enough for this.
AMY GOODMAN: You have another son?
JIM SHANK: How I made it through a day at a time –
AMY GOODMAN: You have another son, Jim?
JIM SHANK: I have two other sons: a son, twenty-four, Christopher, and a son, seventeen, Nathan. And the whole thing has just worn on them. It’s changed them.
AMY GOODMAN: In what way?
JIM SHANK: They’re more prone to anger, to lash out, get in fights. They’re unsure about their future. It wasn’t until yesterday, Nathan was sure that he could — we could afford to send him to college. Now, it’s not set in stone, but the outlook is better that we will be able to. And just, well, the outpouring of people in this country, so many people have come to our aid. If I could be so blunt, even a gentleman in Tennessee, he has set up a website called hope4shank.com, and he’s selling candles in Jeremy’s memory and wants all the funds to go for Debbie’s care. I mean, it’s just things like that. A gentleman in Georgia, his church is having a fundraiser for Debbie. It’s just all across the country, people are reaching out to help. And if we could — this is a great country. If we had some leadership that could harness the people that we have, we wouldn’t be in the situations we’re in. We have some great people in this country. The citizens of the United States are still loving, caring, giving people.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shank, when your story got national attention on the networks, starting to get it day after day, you know, pointing out that Wal-Mart had made something like, I think it was $11 billion in profits last year, but was suing you and Debbie for the money for Debbie’s care, and then turned around yesterday. We had called Wal-Mart several times yesterday to ask them to join us, and then we got this statement. What difference did the media attention make in your case?
JIM SHANK: Between the media and the attention that it got from people, people saying they’d never shop at Wal-Mart, people angry at Wal-Mart — I mean, writing in on internet blogs and all just bashing Wal-Mart — between that and the media coverage, I guess it was just too much bad publicity for them, and they had to spin it differently, and they changed their mind. I mean, I congratulate them for it, but it just —- it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know other people in this situation?
JIM SHANK: Pardon me?
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know anyone else in a similar situation -—
JIM SHANK: No, not right off.
AMY GOODMAN: — who was sued for their insurance costs?
JIM SHANK: I don’t know anyone right off. But that’s — to me, that’s the victory, that if Wal-Mart really comes through and says they’re going to change their policy like they are, this won’t have to happen again. And that will be — that’s sort of the strength I take from this, is that we helped somebody else, too, not just for Debbie. This was a victory for everybody. And maybe it will make other companies look at their policies, too, that they could be in the same boat. I know there’s a lot of companies out there that have this subrogation policy that they can recoup the money.
AMY GOODMAN: Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest non-government employer with over 1.3 million employees. What do you have to say to them today, Jim?
JIM SHANK: Well, pretty much like I said, it’s a victory for them, too. It’s not just Debbie. It’s their victory. Their company is supposed to — they talk about how good they are to their employees, well, they finally put the right foot forward here.
AMY GOODMAN: Has Debbie learned of Wal-Mart dropping the suit, saying they won’t take your money?
JIM SHANK: I haven’t been able to tell her yet. Yesterday was so crazy, I didn’t get a chance to get by, but that’s on the agenda for first thing this morning. But it won’t really sink into her. It’ll be — you know, she’ll realize it at that time, and five minutes later it won’t mean a thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jim Shank, I want to thank you for spending the time this morning talking to us.
JIM SHANK: I appreciate you having me on. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Does this mean that your bank account will be — this money will be unfrozen?
JIM SHANK: As far as I understand, that’s — it should be turned back over to us. I’m just waiting to hear from my attorney to find out what the details are. At least I have it in writing that they are going to turn it over.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shank, thanks again, talking to us from Jackson, Missouri. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll keep you updated to let you know when that money is unfrozen.