“My teenager got caught shoplifting and was not charged by the police. 5 months after the fact I get a letter from a lawyer saying I owe the store $1000.00. Can they do that? What should I do?”
This is a standard procedure followed mostly by large retailers. Essentially what you have received is a letter of notice requesting that you pay the store for the damages incurred in the process of arresting your son. This according to retailers allows them to absorb some of their security expenses.
I personally find this way of proceeding abusive in many circumstances. These standard letters often mislead the public into believing that if the requested sum is not paid, criminal charges may be laid. In addition some of these claims are grossly disproportionate to the actual damages the store incurred. A 350 $ claim following an incident of a stolen chocolate bar is not unheard of.
Many individuals are not as fortunate as your son and have to answer both to criminal charges as well as the subsequent letter from the retailer.
In such cases, if the individual believes to be innocent, then paying this claim can be considered an admission of guilt and I would therefore advise against it. Even if ultimately acquitted of the charges, you will not be reimbursed for paying the retailer’s claim. On the other hand, should a person who already paid the claim decide to plead guilty to the criminal charges of theft, they may nevertheless have to pay an additional court fine.
As these letters have not been deemed illegal as of yet, I cannot as a lawyer guarantee that you will not be sued in a civil court should you decide not to pay. Based on my experience however, I can tell you that it is highly unlikely.
The main reason being that is simply not worth their while, as it is more costly for the company to send a lawyer to act against you in court than the claim itself. Don’t forget that these large retailers send hundreds of such letters a month. If only 20% percent result in payment, that nevertheless covers a considerable amount of their security expenses.
In addition, I am not aware of the circumstances of the alleged theft. But if the store recovered their merchandise and nothing was damaged, 1000$ strikes me as a grossly exaggerated claim.
There are very few reported cases in such maters. Generally these are almost exclusively presented before small claims courts. I have only heard of one case that goes back to 1997, in which Zellers, claiming 540$ in damages was finally only awarded 215$ by the judge.
So to answer your questions: Can they do that? Unfortunately they can. Should you pay? Well, I hope my response helps you decide.