More than 30 lawsuits have been filed against Giant Eagle over the grocery chain’s mask policy, with plaintiffs claiming it is discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A wave of lawsuits against Giant Eagle began in late May with seven cases filed in federal court. Plaintiffs included residents of the Alle-Kiski Valley, Cranberry and other areas surrounding Pittsburgh. They described grocery store employees yelling at them and physically escorting them from the premises after they tried to shop without masks.
In the span of just three weeks, the number of lawsuits in the region has grown to 32, all represented by attorney Thomas Anderson. Four new lawsuits have been filed this week.
The lawsuits argue Giant Eagle’s policy surpasses the state-ordered mandate for masks in public places. Gov. Tom Wolf’s order makes allowances for children and for people with disabilities, and states customers do not need a medical excuse to forgo a mask.
In a statement in late May, when the first round of lawsuits emerged, Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts said the chain was reviewing the complaints and declined further comment. Roberts said Wednesday evening that the company had nothing to add at this time.
Several of the complaints quote the owner of an unnamed Giant Eagle store, who allegedly posted publicly, “It’s too easy to make up an excuse not to wear a mask, and we refuse to put our team members and customers who do wear a mask at any more risk than they already are.”
The newest complaints were filed Tuesday.
One came from Tammie Aiken. According to Aiken’s complaint, she has a history of lung fibrosis, stroke and vertigo that limits her breathing and prevents her from wearing a mask. She was shopping at the Cranberry Mall Giant Eagle on May 28 when she was told to leave the store. An employee allegedly yelled at Aiken, causing everyone to look and drawing attention to her medical condition.
The other lawsuit filed Tuesday was from Katherine Duckstein of Seven Fields in Butler County. According to her complaint, Duckstein has vasovagal syncope, a condition where blood pressure and heart rate suddenly drop, causing her to faint; post-traumatic stress disorder; and a form of anxiety that makes it difficult to breathe while wearing a mask. She had shopped at a store without a mask in late May, after confirming with the company that she could forgo a mask as long as she had a medical condition. However, when she tried to shop there again June 8, she said Giant Eagle had “reinstituted” its no-exception mask policy.
Duckstein said she told the store manager she could have a seizure if she wore a mask. The manager told Duckstein it was store policy, but she continued to shop anyway. Duckstein told the manager he would have to call the police to discuss the matter further.
A police officer arrived before Duckstein was done shopping, and she was escorted out of the store. The store manager took Duckstein’s bank card and paid for her groceries while she waited outside with the officer. The complaint said the officer told Duckstein that Giant Eagle was being “ridiculous,” but he was just doing his job.
Two cases were filed in Johnstown on Monday. Michael Hammers, one of the Johnstown plaintiffs, is a disabled veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder, allergies and chronic sinusitis. His complaint said these conditions make it difficult for Hammers to breathe and limits his ability to wear a mask.
The complaint said Hammers was yelled at by a Giant Eagle employee May 31 when he attempted to shop without a mask. He then covered his mouth with a bandana, but another employee approached him to say he must cover his nose as well. Hammers said he would be unable to breathe, and he was told to leave the store.
According to the complaint, Hammers’ wife continued to shop. She alleged the checkout employee she interacted with was wearing a mask that did not cover her nose.
The other plaintiff who filed in Johnstown on Monday was Molly Shirk, who suffers from bilateral atypical trigeminal neuralgia. The condition, according to her complaint, causes facial pain and prevents her from wearing a mask. Shirk tried to shop without a mask April 30 at a Giant Eagle in Roaring Spring, where she said she was yelled at and “humiliated” by an employee.
Charges brought against the company in the plethora of lawsuits include retaliation and coercion in violation with the ADA, assault and battery and others.
Wolf set the policy in mid-April that businesses require customers and workers at essential businesses to wear masks on the premises, and many states have set similar measures. The policy states all individuals over the age of 2 must wear a mask, except in the cases of medical exceptions — which do not have to be proven.
The policy has caused some controversy as some see it as a violation of individual rights. Still, experts insist wearing masks in public is essential to curbing the spread of the coronavirus, and many see it as a minor inconvenience.