GREG RAY: Come the raw prawn

PEOPLE eat things in supermarkets.

We know this because we see it happen. Or, if we don't see it happen, we see the empty packets and wrappers shoved on shelves where the eaters have put them, once they've had their feed.

As a matter of fact I know a person who - having enjoyed her in-store snack - actually takes the empty packet or wrapper to the checkout so the barcode can be scanned.

It's a kind of grey area, I guess. Technically an item isn't yours until you've paid for it, but if you are absolutely certain that you will pay, then it can't really be theft. Or can it?

Lots of actual real fruit shops are happy for you to sample a grape or two, or a piece of apple, or a plum, just so you can be satisfied of the quality.

But in most supermarkets I'm hardly game to even take a semi-surreptitious sniff for fear of being accused of something untoward.

Although maybe I should stop worrying, following a recent court case involving a Coles supermarket.

You might have read about it. An artist, Philip Clarke, 49, had done a lot of shopping at Sydney's Lane Cove store, and apparently quite a few staff members there knew him by sight as a regular customer.

One day in 2009 he bought some uncooked prawns from the deli counter and, after they were bagged and wrapped, he kept shopping. Until he started to wonder whether he'd actually bought enough prawns for the big meal he had planned.

He opened the package, took a look, then decided he should get some more and went back to the deli. Without eating any.

That was when things went wrong, first for Mr Clarke, but ultimately for Coles.

A store manager allegedly got stuck into Mr Clarke, accusing him of scoffing some of these (green) prawns and hiding the shells.

Mr Clarke took great offence and sued Coles for defamation, arguing that he was humiliated in front of various other shoppers and that his reputation was prone to be damaged by the story being passed along.

The district court agreed with him, and awarded him $52,000 in damages.

Coles tried to appeal, but got knocked back last week, as the papers reported.

This case came to my mind recently when I was at a restaurant with - among other people - my mum.

She'd had a glass of the rather pricey house wine and ordered a second. The refill looked pretty stingy but, when queried, the waitress said it was "our normal pour" and departed.

So, my dad asked the head waiter for his opinion on the allegedly too-small drink.

The waiter's reaction was to ask whether "madam had drunk from the glass". Implying, inevitably, that my mum may have taken a big swig and was so keen to save a dollar that she was fronting up for a cut-price refill.

Grudgingly he sloshed a bit more plonk into the glass, simultaneously admonishing that "there won't be any more".

Now, ordinarily I would be the first to applaud such a conspicuous instance of responsible service of alcohol, but family loyalty is thicker than house white, so on this occasion my sympathy rests with my mum.

My theoretical question to any opportunistic lawyers who might be reading this is, can my mum sue the restaurant for defamation?

Frankly, I don't think she would be bothered, especially since she vented next day by phoning the restaurant to explain why she would never, ever be back, under any circumstances.

I have to admit - based on my own experiences in dealing with "the public" - to feeling a bit sorry for the supermarket manager, at least.

It's always the way: you're sure customers have been diddling you behind your back, and you think you've caught one out, at last.

You unleash your pent-up, righteous indignation and find, to your dismay, that you've chosen the wrong target. And all over a few raw prawns or a splash of house plonk.

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