Solicitor sues Sainsbury's for libellous shoplifting accusion

Matthew Howe  30-10-2023

Solicitor, Andrew Milne, has issued High Court proceedings against supermarket giant, Sainsbury's, for defamation of character. Having paid for his goods, Mr Milne was walking out of a Sainsbury’s store in Merseyside when he was followed by a security guard. In front of roughly 50 other shoppers, the security guard shouted at Mr Milne:

Stop, thief. You are a thief. You are a shoplifter. You should be in jail. I am arresting you for shoplifting. You are a thief… you are stealing my bag… you have stolen goods in your bag. I am arresting you, thief”

Mr Milne asserts that as a result of the accusations, his reputation has been seriously harmed, especially as he was raised in the area and is therefore well known in the local community.

In order to have an actionable claim for slander (one of the types of defamation), the words complained of (the untrue statement) would need to lower the claimant’s reputation in the estimation of right-thinking people. Accusations of a criminal offence, such as theft in this case, have unsurprisingly been found to lower a claimant’s reputation in this way.

To compensate him for the serious harm to his reputation, Mr Milne is seeking damages of £25,000 from Sainsbury's. In defending the claim, Sainsbury's assert that no real harm was caused to Mr Milne’s reputation. As the claimant (the party bringing the claim), Mr Milne will need to prove that his reputation was, as a matter of fact, seriously harmed as a result of the accusation. Simply because the words complained of have the inherent tendency to cause harm to reputation does not mean that the claimant’s reputation has in fact been harmed. Mr Milne would need to prove that the accusation by the security guard has actually had an impact on his reputation.

Sainsbury's do not admit the slanderous words were said, but regardless, they assert that the security guard had a social, legal and/or moral duty in making the accusation in order to prevent theft. This is known as the defence of qualified privilege. Although Sainsbury's do not allege that Mr Milne stole anything, they say the security alarms went off when he left the store. He was asked by the security guard to stop but allegedly refused, resulting in the security guard following him outside and then shouting the accusation.

Sainsbury's state that the security guard would have a duty in making the accusation and those other shoppers in the vicinity would have a reciprocal duty/interest in receiving the accusation to make them aware of the suspected theft and to assist. Qualified privilege requires a reciprocal duty/interest for both the publisher and recipient(s). 

Interestingly, Sainsbury's also deny that they employed the security guard at all. Instead, the security guard is supposedly employed by a third party. It is possible, in certain circumstances, to bring a claim against an employer for their employee’s defamatory statements. However, if Sainsbury's did not employ the security guard then Mr Milne may have issued his slander case against the wrong party. 

The facts of this case are not rare and many shoppers are wrongly accused of shoplifting each year. Many claims struggle to get off the ground however, because either the accused cannot prove that the accusation was heard by anyone else (third party publication is essential) or that even if the accusation was overheard, whether it caused any actual impact on their reputation. 

If you have been wrongly accused of shoplifting then contact us today to speak to one of our experienced reputation management lawyers, to find out how we can help.

supermarket security guard slander thief allegation claim compensation