VA hospital backs down after slapping man with $525 fine over soda refill

The VA hospital that slapped a $525 federal fine on a man after he refilled his 89-cent drink without paying has backed down, choosing to issue a warning instead of a citation, a spokesperson for the facility said Thursday.

Christopher T. Lewis, of North Charleston, was issued the $525 citation on Wednesday after he ignored signage indicating that there’s no such thing as a free lunch — or complimentary drink refills — at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston. Lewis, who is not a federal employee, told responding officers he had done the same thing “multiple times” before and never had any problems, hospital spokeswoman Tonya Lobbestael told

“Shoplifting is against the law and the signage is very clearly posted on the drink machine,” Lobbestael said. “The same citation could be issued to anyone who is shoplifting.”

But Lobbestael said Thursday afternoon that the medical center had decided "a warning in lieu of a citation is sufficient in this case." Authorities said earlier Thursday that Lewis, a construction worker who was employed near the medical center, also had been banned from his work site. It was not immediately clear whether that penalty remained in effect.


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Lewis, who could not be reached for comment earlier Thursday by, was “verbally aggressive” when confronted by VA officials and police regarding the soda, Lobbestael said. She did not elaborate.

“Here’s the bottom line: They’re the police and they have a responsibility to enforce the law and protect and preserve,” she said. “And they do attempt to diffuse situations before they resort to other measures.”

Lewis, meanwhile, claims he wasn’t given a chance to pay for the refill and was planning to contest the hefty fine in federal court. He told WCSC-TV he was flabbergasted by the charges.

“Every time I look at the ticket, it’s unbelievable to me,” he told the station. “I can’t fathom the fact that I made a 89-cent mistake that cost me $525.”

Lewis said he was grabbed by the arm by a man who identified himself as the chief of police at the VA hospital after he refilled his beverage.

“I told him I wasn’t aware that I had to pay for that,” said Lewis, adding that he tried to pay at that point but wasn’t allowed to do so.

Lewis said he was then taken to a private room, given the ticket and told not to return to the property.

“I’m done there, at the VA hospital,” he told WCSC-TV. “I’m not allowed to go on the premises anymore.”

Hospital officials confirmed in a statement that Lewis was issued a federal citation for shoplifting. The amount is not determined by VA officials and may be contested in federal court.'s Joshua Rhett Miller and Karl de Vries contributed to this report.