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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Bosses of the Year

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (CN) - Four employees say that Sonic Restaurants fired them after they were robbed five times at gunpoint. They claim their boss obstructed police investigations of the robberies, ordered police out of the restaurant, ordered the workers not to cooperate with the police investigation, and actually profited from the fourth robbery.

Two assistant managers and two cooks say their manager, defendant Pete Nighswonger, showed complete disregard for their safety and hindered police investigations by refusing to turn over surveillance video or let investigators interview them after the armed robberies.

The workers say "Nighswonger personally profited from the fourth robbery by retaining cash he reported stolen."

All of the robberies were committed by one or more armed gunmen. Natalie Wallner, a young mother, said she believed her life was over when a robber cocked his gun and pressed it to her head as she unlocked the restaurant safe.

She says the gunman told her, "Too late, bitch. You're dead anyway, you took too long," upon which she collapsed into a fetal position.

Thirty-five minutes after those gunman left, Nighswonger arrived and remained in his vehicle in the parking lot, demanded that police leave the property and told the officers to cite Wallner's understandably upset father for trespass, according to the complaint.

According to the complaint in Polk County Court, Sonic managers acknowledged in an email to employees that a better safe had prevented robberies at other Sonic locations, but provided no explanation why such a safe was not installed at their location.

When they finally did get the safe, it did not have warning stickers indicating that managers or employees could not unlock it, according to the complaint.

After the fourth robbery, the employees say they were given the Sonic Drive-In Crisis Hotline phone number. They say the hotline official told them to draft a letter that outlined their fears and concerns and to obtain signatures from all those that feared for their lives.

Twelve workers signed it, and when Nighswonger learned of the letter, he confronted the staff and asked who among them was afraid for their lives. When the four plaintiffs identified themselves, Nighswonger responded, "Well I don't need you here, you're fired," according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs seek damages for negligent training and supervision, gross mismanagement, and for their post-traumatic stress, depression, panic attacks, and insomnia.

Defendants MBV Sonics, SDI of Winter Haven and McClain Sonics "comprise one of Sonic Restaurants, Inc.'s ('Sonic') largest franchise groups and currently own and operate more than one hundred (100) Sonic restaurants throughout Alabama, Florida and Mississippi," according to the complaint. All five robberies happened at the Winter Haven outlet, say the plaintiffs, who also sued Nighswonger and Sonic manager Dane Martin.

Plaintiffs' lead counsel is Raul Valles Jr. with Rocke McLean of Tampa.

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