Eddie Bauer's day in court Discrimination suit: Judgment against clothing store should send a message.

October 13, 1997

ONLY THE SECURITY guard involved really knows if racism motivated him to order a young black man suspected of shoplifting to take off his Eddie Bauer shirt. A Prince George's County jury was convinced the guard wrongly sent the teen-ager home without clothing he had actually purchased. The jury was convinced the Eddie Bauer company bore responsibility for the guard's actions. But the jurors were unsure what went through the guard's mind.

Testimony indicated the security guard, off-duty Prince George's police officer Robert Sheehan, suspected Alonzo Jackson of shoplifting because the Eddie Bauer shirt he was wearing looked new. It was new. Mr. Jackson had purchased it the day before. Testimony did not reveal why the guard didn't believe the black teen-ager and sent him home shirtless.

Officer Sheehan may have been "profiling" -- assuming certain people, by virtue of appearance and mannerisms, may have committed a crime. The jury found Eddie Bauer guilty of false imprisonment, defamation and negligent supervision. The company must pay $850,000 to Mr. Jackson and $75,000 each to two friends also detained for shoplifting.

Eddie Bauer, considering it had been sued for $85 million, was pleased. Mr. Jackson's father said the young men were happy the episode was over. The civil rights community hailed the ruling. But a retailers' association said the decision proved department stores don't discriminate against blacks.

The fact that racism could not be proved or disproved provides little comfort that such incidents will disappear. But it should send a message to merchants that the price of ignoring practices that may be considered discriminatory can be high, indeed.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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