Customer says he lost a leg trying to stop thief at NC grocery store. Now he’s suing

Just before Christmas in 2019, a regular customer at a discount grocery store in Western North Carolina tried to stop a shoplifter who made off with an armful of meat.

It cost him part of his leg.

Now William Modlin, who was 61 when he got run over in the parking lot of a Go Grocery Outlet in Asheville, wants $850,000 from the store chain he says is responsible.

In a lawsuit moved to federal court on Friday from Buncombe County Superior Court, an attorney for Modlin said United Grocery Outlet — which operates a chain of discount stores known as Go Grocery Outlet in six states across the Southeast — failed to adequately deescalate the situation after Modlin confronted the shoplifter in the parking lot.

Modlin “suffered an irreparable de-gloving injury to the bottom of his right foot, thereby necessitating an amputation of his right leg just below the knee,” the complaint says.

Attorneys and a representative from United Grocery Outlet did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment Wednesday. An attorney representing Modlin also did not respond.

Spooked by a box cutter

According to the complaint, Modlin was entering the grocery store where he regularly shopped on Leicester Highway on Dec. 16, 2019, when he saw another man hurry past the checkout with an armful of meat.

“Hey man, what are you doing!” he said, according to court filings.

The shoplifter made a break for the parking lot, where Modlin followed him intending to get a license plate number or a description of the car, the complaint said. Instead, he said, he found the man sitting in the front seat of a car with the door open.

As Modlin reportedly tried to encourage the man to “do the right thing” by leaving the stolen meat and driving away, his attorney said, a grocery store employee “suddenly and angrily appeared” with a box cutter threatening to slash the man’s tires.

That’s when the man accused of shoplifting “suddenly and without warning accelerated his vehicle in reverse and fled the scene,” the lawsuit said. “As a result, plaintiff was trapped and struck by the opened driver’s door. In the process of the shoplifter fleeing, plaintiff was knocked to the ground, dragged across the asphalt and ran over.”

According to an accident report filed by the Asheville Police Department, the hit and run occurred when Modlin “got in an verbal altercation” with a man he caught “attempting to steal meat from the store.”

The man reversed with the driver’s side door open and knocked Modlin over, dragging him with the car and ultimately running over his legs, police said. Modlin had non-life threatening injuries and was taken to Mission Hospital.

The shoplifter fled the scene and, after exhausting their leads, law enforcement closed the case in January 2020.

‘Reckless and unreasonable’

Modlin is suing for negligence. His attorney said United Grocery Outlet owes its customers a reasonable duty of care that the store employee breached when she tried to slash the shoplifter’s tires.

“She engaged in reckless and unreasonable conduct that she knew or should have known could escalate the situation and cause a flight response from the shoplifter,” the lawsuit said.

United Grocery Outlet asked a superior court judge to toss the case before it was transferred to federal court. In a motion to dismiss filed in October, attorneys for the grocery store chain said Modlin was hit by the alleged shoplifter but largely denied the allegations against the company.

They said Modlin assumed the risk of being injured when he attempted to stop the shoplifter.

“Plaintiff was perfectly competent to judge the appropriateness of the circumstances and conditions alleged to be existing at the time and place of the alleged accident and, therefore, by his actions, plaintiff freely and voluntarily exposed himself to the alleged danger,” the motion said.

United Grocery Outlet subsequently removed the case to the Western District of North Carolina on Jan. 15, where both parties will now have to agree to the change in jurisdiction, court filings show.