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Will Wal-Mart Do the Right Thing for Brain-Damaged Ex-Employee Debbie Shank's Family?

Debbie Shank used to stock shelves at night for Wal-Mart so she could spend time in the afternoons with her three sons. Now she lives in a nursing home, requires around-the-clock medical care and owes Wal-Mart almost $500,000.
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Debbie Shank used to stock shelves at night for Wal-Mart so she could spend time in the afternoons with her three sons. Now she lives in a nursing home, requires around-the-clock medical care and owes Wal-Mart almost $500,000.

Last November, I wrote about this 52 year-old Missouri woman who worked for Wal-Mart when she was left "brain damaged, disabled and penniless" from a car accident seven years ago. Much to Wal-Mart's dismay, the story isn't going anywhere. This week, it was the lead feature and most-emailed story on, and was featured on CNN's Headline News and Anderson Cooper 360. Wednesday, Wal-Mart was named "Worst Person in the World" on Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Now Wal-Mart is forced to decide if the relatively small amount of money they'll collect from this suffering family is worth the damage to its reputation from the growing national outrage against what Wal-Mart is doing to Debbie Shank.

First, a little background on the story:

After the accident, Debbie won a $417,000 settlement (after legal fees) from the trucking company at fault, which the family set aside in a trust for her future medical expenses. Wal-Mart subsequently used a subrogation clause in Debbie's health insurance policy contract to sue the family for $470,000 to reimburse the company for every cent it had paid for Debbie's medical bills - plus interest and legal fees.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court crushed the family's last hope when it refused to hear Debbie Shank's case, and required her to pay Wal-Mart $470,000 - more than the amount that remains in her trust. Now her family doesn't know how they'll pay Debbie's nursing home bills.

This family has already sacrificed enough. In fact, around the same time the U.S. District Court sided with Wal-Mart over the Shank family in fall 2006, Debbie's 18-year-old son, Jeremy, was killed while serving in Iraq. The Shanks are an honest, hard-working family living most people's worst nightmare - and Wal-Mart is determined to make it worse.

Debbie's husband, Jim, recently told the Morning News for Northwest Arkansas:

"She's 52 and she's going to live a life in a nursing home. I just got a call today from the head nurse, and (Debbie) hasn't eaten in a couple days and she's talking about wanting to die," Shank said. "It makes the visits hard."

... "Be a human being; don't be a corporation," Shank said, "for the sake of one lady who is going to be miserable for the rest of her life. Take your victory. Let us pay some bills and get some quality of life."

Wal-Mart representatives repeatedly assert that it is necessary to take this money from the Shank family to ensure its health care plan can pay its future claims for associates. But, as Jeffrey Toobin pointed out on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, Wal-Mart does NOT have to sue this family. The reality is that Wal-Mart's health insurance plan is funded by Wal-Mart - the largest company in the world with $11 billion in profits last year, and run by the Walton family - the wealthiest family in the United States.

This company already has a reputation for treating its employees poorly, but for Wal-Mart to take Debbie Shank's money shows that Wal-Mart and the Walton family are truly heartless.

In December, Wal-Mart Watch conducted an online fundraiser for the Shank family and appealed to the Wal-Mart Foundation, the Wal-Mart Employee Fund and the Walton foundation to match our donation. But, Wal-Mart didn't care enough to even respond.

We recently launched an online petition to ask Wal-Mart to let the Shanks keep their money because we're not the only ones who think that Wal-Mart employees or shareholders would probably be willing to let this one go. Wal-Mart earns $470,000 in revenue every 38 seconds and Lee Scott takes home more than $470,000 every week.

For the millions of dollars that Wal-Mart spends to improve its image, it can't hide from the truth. Wal-Mart can still do the right thing and let the Shank family keep their money so they can take care of Debbie. Or, it can continue to be live up to its poor reputation, recently dubbed "the worst person in the world."