You may never receive a demand letter or may receive before or after the underlying criminal case is resolved. The question of whether to pay is not always straightforward and often depends on the circumstances and timing.
Can the retailer sue me?
Yes- under N.C.G.S. 1-538.2 a retailer has the right to sue a defendant charged with larceny or shoplifting for both damages and attorney fees. The statute provides for minimum damages of $150.00 and goes up to to $1,000.00. The standard demand letter is for $150.00.
Will the retailer sue me?
Unlikely- suing somebody for $150 is simply not worth the time or effort. The filing fee alone for Small Claims Court is $100.00 not even counting the service fees, attorney fees, and the time and effort required to send the loss prevention employee witness to the alleged crime. The other main barrier to suing a NC resident is the general difficulty in collection civil judgments due to the general prohibition on wage garnishment for most debts in NC.
Is there any benefit to paying?
Sometimes paying and having proof is useful in persuading the District Attorney (“DA”) to drop the underlying criminal charge. Nevertheless, do not assume that paying the $150.00 will result in dismissal of the criminal case via an informal deferred prosecution, or you are likely to be disappointed.
Should i pay?
I tell clients the choice is one they need to make. Usually the DA or retailer does not particularly care if you pay or not. As I have never seen a lawsuit for failure to pay under N.C.G.S. 1-538.2 filed in NC the only real concern is the credit report issue.
Why do retailers send Civil Demand Letters?
The cost of a stamp is well worth the return these demand letters generate. Even if only 10% of recipients pay that is still a net win for Walmart or Target. They generally use out of state law firms to send out letters nationwide that likely receive a very small cut of any money received.
Is paying an admission of guilt?
Not necessarily. Many lawsuits or potential lawsuits are settled without any admission of liability simply to avoid the hassle and expense of litigation.
Will failure to pay appear on my credit report?
That might be the one big unknown regarding the alleged debt. Despite never seeing a refusal to pay appear on a credit report that may be a possible concern of refusing to pay.
NCGS § 1-538.2. Civil liability for larceny, shoplifting, theft by employee, embezzlement, and obtaining property by false pretense.
(a) Any person, other than an unemancipated minor, who commits an act that is punishable under G.S. 14-72, 14-72.1, 14-74, 14-90, or 14-100 is liable for civil damages to the owner of the property. In any action brought by the owner of the property, the owner is entitled to recover the value of the goods or merchandise, if the goods or merchandise have been destroyed, or any loss of value to the goods or merchandise, if the goods or merchandise were recovered, or the amount of any money lost by reason of the theft or embezzlement or fraud of an employee. In addition to the above, the owner of the property is entitled to recover any consequential damages, and punitive damages, together with reasonable attorneys' fees. The total compensatory and consequential damages awarded to a plaintiff against a defendant under this section shall not be less than one hundred fifty dollars ($150.00) and shall not exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000), except an act punishable under G.S. 14-74 or G.S. 14-90 shall have no maximum limit under this section.