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Ralphs Settles New Counts of Overcharging; to Pay Out $38,500 : Supermarkets: It is chain's second such case in two years. Disparities between shelf and checkout prices were targeted.

July 23, 1994|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the second time in two years, Ralphs Grocery Co. has pleaded no contest to criminal counts of overcharging customers at some of its stores and has agreed to pay fines and a penalty.

The charges involved disparities between the posted shelf price on some products and prices registered at the checkout counter.

The accusations followed inspections by the Los Angeles County Department of Weights and Measures at 10 supermarkets in the San Fernando Valley and central and West Los Angeles. City Atty. Jim Hahn filed the case in April, charging Ralphs and the managers of the 10 stores with 17 counts of false advertising and seven counts of overcharging customers.

In a plea bargain with prosecutors entered in Van Nuys Municipal Court, the supermarket chain agreed to pay a fine of $5,000 and a penalty of $8,500. Ralphs also agreed to donate $20,000 in food to two food banks for the poor and $5,000 in Ralphs gift certificates to be divided among five Los Angeles shelters for battered women.

In exchange, Hahn dropped all but five misdemeanor overcharging counts against the company. He also dismissed all charges against the 10 store managers. The managers could have faced fines ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 and up to six months in jail if they had been convicted.

The managers were charged because the violations occurred despite the fact that they had all taken part in a price-accuracy training program imposed on Ralphs in the 1992 settlement, said Richard Schmidt, a deputy city attorney in the Van Nuys office.

Ralphs paid $3,500 in fines to settle the 1992 case. The fine, penalty and donations for the 1994 violations amount to $38,500.

"We agreed to a settlement because this is a significant amount of money and a significant disposition," Schmidt said.

Ralphs--Southern California's third-largest grocery chain--said four of the charges involved shelf label pricing that did not match the actual prices. However, the label prices on those items also had expiration dates, and those dates were printed on the shelves, said Jan Charles Gray, senior vice president at Ralphs. Gray said the fifth charge involved a product that carried an inaccurate bar--a manufacturer's error.

"We're pleased with the settlement, which reflects a lower cost than litigating the case--which we were prepared to do," Gray said. "Ralphs has been in business in this community for 121 years, and we have one of the highest levels of pricing accuracy in the industry."

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