Spear one cheese cube with a toothpick and you’re sampling. Are you pilfering if you snare a dozen? Is it shoplifting if you dump the plateful in a produce bag for later?
How much is too much? Exactly what constitutes a free sample?
Those were the questions at the heart of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
The plaintiff, 68 year-old Erwin Lingitz, went into the Cub Goods supermarket in White Bear Township, Minnesota to pick up a prescription. He helped himself at two un-hosted displays offering free samples of lunch meat, and then packed some up for his wife who was waiting outside in the car. He was arrested by store security as he exited the store.
An attorney for the supermarket chain itemized his haul: “Plaintiff had approximately 14-16 packets of soy sauce along with one plastic produce bag containing 0.61 pounds for [sic] summer sausage and another plastic produce bag containing 0.85 pounds of beef stick in his pockets,” She also claims that the store’s manager had spotted Mr. Lingitz on previous occasions filling plastic produce bags “with 10-20 cookies from the kids’ cookie club tray, which specifically limits the offer to one free cookie per child.”
The supermarket called it theft, arguing that “The plaintiff violated societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices.”
Mr. Lingitz called it a violation of his civil rights and filed suit against Cub Goods for $375,000 in damages. It was potentially a landmark case for retailers and cheapskates alike since there is currently no legal definition for free samples.
The store had defended itself arguing that free samples are governed by “a common-sense rule.”
A few try-before-you-buy grapes is on one side of it, while stuffing a T-bone inside your raincoat is clearly on the other side. The question is, where does 1.46 pounds of ‘free’ lunch meat fall on the side of common sense?
Mr. Lingitz ultimately withdrew his lawsuit, so there was no watershed moment. We’re still left wondering where the legal line exists for free samples. In an interview with the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press, Lingitz’s wife, Frankie defended her husband with her own ruling: “Something is either free or it isn’t. You can’t arrest somebody for thievery if it is free.”
Mr. Lingitz is hardly standing alone on that slippery slope between sampling and stealing.
Who among us has never popped a grape in their mouth in the produce aisle? A website called Free Money Finance will show you how to save $2,000 a year in grocery bills and grow your net worth by eating free samples.