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Grocers Group Sues Wal-Mart

Times Staff Writer

First came the resounding condemnation, now comes the lawsuit.

A California Korean grocers group is suing former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., alleging libel over Young’s derogatory comments about small grocery stores in urban communities.

Young resigned as head of a Wal-Mart advocacy group Aug. 18 after saying Jewish, Korean and Arab grocers “ripped off” African Americans by overcharging them for “stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables.”

The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week by Paul Park, the president of the California Korean American Grocery Retailer Assn., and his group, seeks $7.5 million in general and special damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

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Young’s comments were not only false, according to the suit, but they injured the reputations of Korean American grocers, hurt their sales and therefore also damaged the association.

“Most members are very upset,” said Gene Park (no relation to Paul Park), the association’s secretary and owner of Abic liquor store in South Los Angeles. “There is no evidence that members sold those kinds of spoiled items .... If people think we charge higher prices or sell bad food, they won’t come in anymore.”

Wal-Mart said it was too soon to respond to the substance of the suit.

“Until we can finish studying the complaint, it wouldn’t be right to comment on it,” Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley said. “Needless to say, Andrew Young’s statements in the Los Angeles Sentinel have no place in our company and he did the right thing by resigning his position as the head of Working Families for Wal-Mart.”

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Young could not be reached for comment.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel this month, Young was asked about the retailer’s role in displacing mom-and-pop stores.

“Well, I think they should; they ran the ‘mom-and-pop’ stores out of my neighborhood,” he told the Sentinel, the oldest and largest black-owned weekly newspaper in the West.

“But you see those are the people who have been overcharging us -- selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs, very few black people own these stores.”

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA and an expert in libel law, said the plaintiffs were not likely to succeed.

“As a general matter, you can sue if someone makes false statements about you personally,” Volokh said.

“You can sue if someone makes false statements about a small group of people, including you,” he continued. “But when statements are made about a very large group, no particular member of that group can sue for libel.”

Young, who resigned from his Wal-Mart post the day his comments appeared in the Sentinel, apologized for what he called racist and demagogic remarks and said they did not reflect his true feelings about any of the groups he mentioned.

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