Around the holidays, I wrote an article on shoplifting and the potential criminal penalties thereof. Most people understand that if they are caught shoplifting, then they will face a sentence being imposed on them. However, many people don’t understand the potential civil penalties available to retail stores as the result of a shoplifting. In fact, some of my shoplifting clients receive a letter from a law firm representing the store from which they are accused of shoplifting demanding the payment of damages. This is quite common and I wanted to use this article to explain why accused shoplifters receive this letter.

By enacting O.C.G.A. § 51-10-6, the Georgia Legislature established an owner’s right of action for damage to or theft involving personal property. This statute states that any owner of personal property shall be allowed to bring a civil (as opposed to criminal) action to recover damages from any person who willfully damages the owner’s personal property or who commits a theft of personal property as defined under Georgia law. The property owner is entitled recover damages that include the value of the personal property and any other loss sustained as a result of the willful damage or theft offense. Pursuant to this statute, the legislature further decided that in cases where the total damages are less than $5000, then the property owner is entitled to recover additional damages equal to $300 or triple the amount of the entire loss sustained by the property owner as a result of the willful damage or theft offense, whichever is greater, and, potentially, the cost of maintaining the civil action. To recover the costs of bringing the civil action, the statute requires the property owner to provide written notice to the accused by certified mail at least 30 days prior to filing a lawsuit.

I know this all sounds very technical and full of legal jargon, so let me simplify this statute, if possible, as it applies to shoplifting. Essentially, some of the bigger retail establishments have their attorneys send out these written demand letters to individuals that have been caught shoplifting. If a person does not comply with the demand for payment of the money requested, then the retail store may sue them for more money. Even more severe, if the person does not pay, then that person could be made to pay the costs of the retailer for bringing the lawsuit. While this statute is not set up specifically for retail establishments, the legislature has certainly provided national chain stores with a powerful tool to punish shoplifters. If you or someone you know has received one of these letters, please contact an attorney to discuss your options.

Jeffrey E. Johnston is a local attorney licensed to practice in Georgia. His practice focuses primarily on Criminal Defense and Personal Injury law. His law firm can be reached at (706) 869-8171.