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Real Deal: The Case of the Tragic Young Mother

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It’s the kind of dilemma every store owner dreads, when what’s right for the business conflicts with what appears to be the morally right thing to do.

[span class=alert]To be eligible for publication in INSTORE, responses must include your name, store name, and the city and state in which your store is located. [/span]

[dropcap cap=K]arly Altman felt the tug of the family business even as a child, playing in the back room while her mom and dad ran the sales floor and her grandfather worked at the bench. On some level, she felt it even through college, even after deciding she didn’t want to work the hours it would take to keep the store going – and opted to study for a career in social work. Then, after five years of school and two years of working as a counselor at a family crisis shelter, when her Mom and Dad decided to retire, Karly realized that the passion she’d always felt for the store, for the product, and most importantly, for the customers, had never really gone away. She put an abrupt halt to her father’s plan to liquidate the business and much to his delight, made an agreement to buy it herself.[/dropcap]

Today, after 12 years of steady and consistent growth, and after all the regular ups and downs associated with the day-to-day operation of a service-focused retail store, Karly is still driven by her passion. Moments like this one, however, as she sits at her desk contemplating the best course of action, find her wondering whether her Masters’ degree in social work wasn’t in fact, far better preparation for her job than her GG or all the hours she’d spent in sales training.

Sarah Dononoe had been a childhood friend of Karly’s and a regular customer of Pine Village Jewelers for years. She’d married into a wealthy family and moved to another part of the state shortly after high school, returning home after a particularly bitter divorce with her five-year-old son Matt, and little else to show for her 11-year marriage.

Several years after her return, Sarah began dating a local “bad boy.” Karly was a bit surprised when, after about six months, she found herself selling the pair an engagement ring – and even more surprised when they came back for their wedding bands a little over a month later. Sadly, she was not surprised when Sarah confided just weeks after the wedding that her new husband had been hiding serious issues with alcohol and violence. After a particularly abusive rage that landed Sarah in the hospital, her husband was arrested and charged with felony assault. Much to Karly’s dismay, months of treatment – both physical and emotional – left Sarah weary and dependent on prescription pain killers.

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Though they were separated, Sarah stayed in contact with her husband, hoping his court-ordered treatment would make things right and that they would eventually find their way back together. After one particularly difficult meeting, during which Sarah finally saw that the future she had envisioned would never be, she attempted suicide, swallowing an entire bottle of pain pills. Her mother found her in time to save her – but not in time to keep the record of her suicide attempt from being communicated to Matt’s father. In short order, he was granted custody of Matt and moved him to his family’s home 4 hours away.

Karly thought about the day just 4 weeks ago when Sarah came to her asking if Pine Village would buy back her engagement ring, because it was too painful to look at. The ring was nearly three years old, and while Karly wanted to help her friend, she was not inclined to over-ride store policy entirely. She agreed to take the ring back in exchange for several new items and a credit balance of $459, issued on a store gift card. Three weeks later, Karly got a call from Sarah’s mom, to tell her Sarah had died when she ran her car off the road and into a tree on her way back from a supervised visit with Matt.

Shortly after the funeral, Sarah’s mom called again. Though she couldn’t find the actual card, she was aware that Sarah had traded her ring and had a credit balance, and asked if she could use it to purchase something to remind her of her daughter. Karly said she would look into it, and in the process, learned from her attorney that the gift card, no matter how small, belonged to the estate – making it the legitimate property of her still-legal husband. Even though it was unlikely that either Sarah’s husband would even know about the existence of the gift card, Karly was concerned about crossing any legal lines. When she called Sarah’s dad to tell him she would need proof of ownership through probate, he was very upset, telling Karly that he would have to spend thousands of dollars in fees to move the matter though probate, and asking her to do what was morally right.

Karly knew that the family wanted closure. Her gut told her that no one was going to come in with the still-missing card, and she was even more certain that the estranged husband, whom she saw as largely responsible for Sarah’s death, was the last person she wanted to have a credit balance with her store –  but she felt an obligation to protect herself and her business.

[h3][b]The BIG questions:[/h3]  Should Karly allow Sarah’s parents to redeem the credit without the gift card in hand? What if they find the card? Should she honor it, knowing that it does not legally belong to them? What is the best course of action when morally right conflicts with legally right?[/b]

[span class=alert]To be eligible for publication in INSTORE, responses must include your name, store name, and the city and state in which your store is located. [/span]

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[span class=note]This is an expanded version of a story that appeared in the April 2010 edition of INSTORE[/span]

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