When Debbie Shank began working as a stock clerk at Wal-Mart, she joined the company’s health and benefits plan and paid her premiums as insurance against injury or illness.
In 2000, Shank’s car was rammed by a semi, and she suffered a traumatic brain injury that caused her to be permanently disabled. Her insurance kicked in and paid promptly for her medical bills — for which Shank’s family was grateful. This once vibrant wife and mother now lives in a nursing home and suffers from short-term memory loss, violent mood swings and other effects of her TBI.
Shank’s injuries and disability are tragedy enough for her family. But now they’re also faced with a $400,000-plus lawsuit by Wal-Mart.
Why is Wal-Mart suing a disabled former employee?
It seems that there was a clause in Shank’s health plan that requires her to repay her employer in the event that she received a judgment to cover her medical care.
After her accident, Shank and her family successfully sued the trucking company and won about $477,000. That money was put in a trust for her ongoing medical care, and only about $217,000 remains. Wal-Mart has laid claim to that money, and the company is also demanding hundreds of thousands more from the disabled woman.
The retail giant won a lawsuit against Shank and her family, and the money from the trust is now frozen pending appeals. Shank’s family has hopes that the Supreme Court will review the case.
A Wal-Mark spokesman expressed the company’s sadness about Shank’s condition but said the company had to pursue repayment out of fairness to all participants in the health plan.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of this case through the appeals process and if Wal-Mart will change its position to protect its public image now that this travesty has gotten considerable publicity.
Shank’s situation should also be a cautionary tale for workers. Many people may have health plans with similar provisions and payback clauses. But I’d bet that most are unaware of the financial consequences they could face if they ever need to collect those benefits.
Clearly, Shank’s judgment and the Wal-Mart benefits payout combined weren’t sufficient to pay for her old medical bills and ongoing nursing home care. Now, faced with the prospect of having to pay back more than $400,000 she doesn’t have, what will happen to this woman?
Shank’s husband, who remains committed to his wife, recently divorced her so she could qualify for additional government benefits. Yet another sad twist in a horrible tragedy.