DETROIT -- A 71-year-old woman is taking Michigan's largest supermarket chain to court over a 7-cent pricing mistake that is becoming a cause celebre among consumer groups.
Evelyn Hoff of Madison Heights, Mich., is suing Farmer Jack over a claim that she was overcharged 7 cents for a Stouffer's Lean Cuisine spaghetti entree and that the store did not pay her a penalty.
The dispute focuses attention on the state's item-pricing law, which was amended in 1986 to add, among other things, penalties.
Consumer groups see Ms. Hoff as a test case, a representative for many people who have legitimate claims but do not pursue them.
About 15 to 20 consumer groups have decided to form a war council to deal with this and other consumer issues, said Christine Bailey of the Michigan Consumers Council in Lansing.
Ms. Hoff first complained more than a year ago about the price she was charged for that dinner. Next month, the case goes before a judge in 43rd District Court in Madison Heights.
Ms. Hoff declined to be interviewed, deferring to her attorney, who was out of town. Details were culled from correspondence and legal documents from the court and the Michigan Consumers Council.
On Sept. 5, 1989, Ms. Hoff claims, she was charged $1.85 for a Lean Cuisine dinner that was supposed to be on sale for $1.78.
Ms. Hoff complained to the store manager, who gave her a 7-cent refund.
It wasn't until two days later, when a similar incident occurred at a drugstore, that she learned she might be entitled to more. That store gave her a refund plus a penalty.
Under the item-pricing law, a store can avoid legal action by paying overcharged shoppers a refund plus a penalty of 10 times the overcharge -- at least $1 but not more than $5.
So Ms. Hoff figured Farmer Jack should have paid her $1.07, and went back to the store to collect.
The store manager, Kurt Stanfield, declined to pay her the extra dollar, however, offering just another 7 cents, according to her letters to the company. Mr. Stanfield declined to comment.
After she wrote to the supermarket giant, Farmer Jack sent her a $25 gift certificate as an apology. But Ms. Hoff returned it, choosing instead to fight for the amount she was owed, according to consumer groups.
That set off a flurry of letters between Ms. Hoff, Farmer Jack executives and state officials, culminating in August, when Ms. Hoff filed a $250 lawsuit in small claims court.
But Farmer Jack hired an outside attorney, who bumped the case to District Court. The grocery chain wants the case dismissed.