Top court refuses to hear appeal of Jackson woman fighting Wal-Mart seizure of trust fund

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Wal-Mart company health insurance plan won't seek to take other assets from a family that has lost its last court battle to keep a severely injured woman's trust fund from being seized, a company representative said.

Former Wal-Mart employee Debbie Shank of Jackson racked up $469,000 in medical costs after a 2000 traffic collision. In a subsequent lawsuit, GEM Transportation Inc. agreed to pay $1 million as a settlement of her claims. Debbie Shank received $417,477 from her share after legal fees; her then-husband, Jim Shank, received $200,000, and about $119,000 remained after legal bills.

Wal-Mart's employee health plan, citing a clause in the health plan that required its costs to be repaid after a settlement of claims, sued James Shank to regain the money it spent. But Debbie Shank permanently resides in a nursing home; the money from her settlement was put in a trust fund to pay for her continuing medical care.

Wal-Mart won that suit and every appeal; the U.S. Supreme Court denied James Shank's last appeal Monday when it refused to take the case.

A fair share of the trust fund had already been spent when the health plan sued; James Shank on Tuesday estimated the remaining value at $200,000 to $300,000, and worried that Wal-Mart would seek to regain the remainder from him by taking other assets.

"If they come after that much, I don't know what I will do," Jim Shank said.

But while the plan wants the remaining trust fund money, it won't seek to recover more than that, a company representative said on condition of anonymity.

"The plan is willing to settle," the Wal-Mart representative said.

Debbie Shank is a resident of Monticello House. Since the lawsuit began, she has lost her personal attendant, been required to share a room with another resident and forced onto Medicaid and Medicare to cover her medical expenses.

Jim Shank said Debbie Shank has become depressed recently. "She is just aware enough of what is going on to be miserable," he said. "She is 52 years old and knows she lives in a nursing home and that is as good as it is going to get."

Shank also is bitter toward a court system that he said is not interested in justice. "They are content to sit around and do nothing," he said. "They are going to review George Carlin's obscenity case" -- referring to the high court's decision to hear a case over language in broadcasts -- "but they can't hear mine. Maybe they can come back in 30 years and review mine when I am dead and gone."

Wal-Mart was only defending the integrity of its employee health plan, supported by contributions from the company and employees, the company said in a statement issued Tuesday by spokeswoman Daphne Moore.

"This is a very sad case, and we understand that people will naturally have an emotional and sympathetic reaction," she said in the prepared remarks.

The plan paid for Shank's bills for an accident caused by a third party to keep the family from worry, Moore said in the statement.

"While the Shank case involves a tragic situation, the reality is that the health plan is required to protect its assets so that it can pay the future claims of other associates and their family members."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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