Soda Jerks?

Published in FSD Update

Is not paying for an 89-cent refill just cause for a federal citation?

By Paul King, Editorial Director

My wife works in the cafeteria of a hospital in Chicagoland, a place where you can get a refill on your fountain beverages for a set price. Several times, she has come home from work with stories about customers trying to get their refills for free. She’s even had one gentleman come in with one of those Big Gulp cups from 7-Eleven, insisting that because he used the cup earlier he is entitled to a refill at the hospital’s price.

My wife does her best to make these people pay and turn away anyone not using a cup from the hospital. Sometimes they will walk out without paying, but she doubts that it would be worth it to call security. She lets her boss know and they try to watch out for the scofflaws the next time they come through the servery.

I thought about this earlier this week when I came across a story about a construction worker at the VA Medical Center, in Charleston, S.C., who was fined $525 for taking free refills from the hospital’s cafeteria. Christopher Lewis, who worked for a construction company doing work on the hospital building, told WMBF News that he was under the assumption that drink refills were free.

The hospital countered that there is plenty of signage in the cafeteria explaining that refills are 89 cents. Lewis says he never noticed the signs and had refilled his cup on several occasions.

The difference between my wife’s workplace and the VA hospital is that federal police handle security at VA facilities. After Lewis refilled his cup on April 16, he was stopped by a police officer. After a brief conversation, during which Lewis said that he thought refills were free and admitted to being a serial beverage thief, he was escorted out of the cafeteria, given the $525 ticket and told he was banned from the premises.

According to WMBF, a hospital spokesperson called the illicit refill “theft of government property.” The official charge was shoplifting.

In defense of the VA hospital, I find it a little hard to believe that if there is appropriately displayed signage—say, right on or near the beverage dispensers—Lewis would not have seen it. But without ever having been there, I can’t say for sure that he is lying.

So I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he did tell the police officer that he has done this frequently. Would someone who knows he’s been doing something wrong admit to doing it on a regular basis?

In addition, unless this was some sort of a sting operation where the police were watching Lewis over a number of days—highly unlikely—they only have proof that he was leaving with an unpaid beverage one time. Is that really worth a $525 fine—not to mention the potential loss of his job, because he’s also banned from the site where he’d been working? Seems excessive for a cup of soda or even several cups. And to call it shoplifting or theft of government property?

Technically correct, I’m sure, but definitely over the top. Given the facts as presented in the WMBF story, I would have made him pay for the soda, given him a stern warning and then told staff to watch out for the guy. What do you think, readers? What is your operation’s fountain beverage policy and how do/would you deal with violators? Drop me a note at pking@cspnet.com and I’ll share comments in a future blog.