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Woman Who Sued Disneyland Wins

Court: Jury awards $65,000 to Riverside County resident wrongly accused of shoplifting a doll.

April 25, 1998|ERIKA CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A Riverside County woman who sued Disneyland after being wrongly accused of shoplifting a $30 Mickey Mouse doll was awarded $65,000 this week in one of the few legal cases that the entertainment giant has lost.

"It took two years, but it's finally over," said Denise Winters, 24, a San Jacinto resident who said she filed a lawsuit mostly to teach her son a lesson about standing up for your rights. "I felt I had to prove I had done nothing wrong."

Winters said she took her son, Frankie Lucero, to Disneyland on Feb. 24, 1996, for his third birthday. She bought him a 21-inch Mickey Mouse doll at a souvenir stand. Hours later, she said, she was approached by a plainclothes security officer who said he had seen her steal the doll minutes before from the Star Trader store near Space Mountain. Winters said she and her fiance, Frank Lucero, were interrogated separately for more than two hours, then escorted out of the park.

As they were leaving, Winters said, she found the receipt for the doll in one of her pockets and took it to a park employee, who verified the purchase. "We thought that would take care of everything," Winters said. "But they refused to drop the charges."

She went to trial on a charge of petty theft but was found not guilty June 3, 1996, by an Orange County Municipal Court jury.

After being cleared, Winters sued Disneyland for damages in Orange County Superior Court.

"I thought my chances were slim," she said Friday. "It's scary going up against a big corporation."

Disneyland spokesman Tom Brocato would not comment on Thursday's jury decision except to say, "We're disappointed with the verdict. We're considering an appeal, so we cannot say anything about the case at this time. But the safety and security of our guests remains one of our top priorities."

During 1996, Brocato said, the park won 95% of the cases in which it pressed charges against people suspected of shoplifting.

Walt Disney Co.'s policy of prosecuting shoplifters aggressively at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Florida has resulted in a number of lawsuits over the years.

In November 1996, Disneyland's management ended a 4-year-old practice of offering shoplifting suspects, immediately after detaining them, the option of paying a fine of up to $500 rather than going to court. Instead all cases were then pursued through the judicial system.

Attorney Brent Hales of Temecula, who represented Winters, said the jury's decision shows that Disneyland is not above the law.

"This is a corporation who everyone knows never settles and never loses a case," he said. "But this sends a message to Disneyland that their security force needs to treat guests fairly and decently. This was an injustice that needed to be dealt with."

Winters said she could have avoided the prosecution by paying a $275 fine that Disneyland imposed by mail, but she feared that her career would suffer.

"I work in retail, and I was afraid if I was convicted of shoplifting that I would lose my job," she said.

The cosmetics counter manager was awarded $30,000 in punitive damages and $35,000 in compensatory damages. The security guard who detained her was also ordered to pay $750 in punitive damages.

"I don't ever want to go back," Winters said of the Magic Kingdom. "But it's sad. . . . My little boy is only 5 years old, and he's always telling me he wants to go to Disneyland again." The child doesn't even have a souvenir from the 1996 visit, she said: "They never even gave the doll back."

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