Florida Woman Coughs on Cancer Patient

A Florida woman has been sentenced to 30 days in jail for intentionally coughing on a cancer patient during an altercation at a Pier 1 store. On June 21, 2020, Heather Sprague noticed Debra Jo Hunter berating Pier 1 employees for not giving her a refund on an item that she was trying to return but didn’t have with her. Sprague took out her phone and started recording the incident. (1, 2)

In the video, a maskless Hunter can be seen making an obscene gesture at Sprague. She then said, “I think I’ll get really close to you and cough on you then. How’s that?” (1, 2)

Hunter approached Sprague and coughed on her. Then, she gathered her children and left the store with them. (1, 2)

Cancer Patient Concerned for Her Health

The day after the incident, Sprague posted the video to Facebook, where it quickly went viral. She began her post by writing, “Yesterday I learned firsthand the power of conscientious bystanders. It took 30 seconds to end 15 minutes of aggressive harassment.” (2)

In her post, Sprague described more of Hunter’s behavior that had occurred before she started filming. She said that the Pier 1 staff remained professional and respectful while explaining that they couldn’t accept a return for an item that Hunter didn’t have in her possession. Sprague wrote that she observed Hunter scream and curse at the staff before positioning herself to block them from exiting the checkout area. While all of this was happening, Sprague wrote, Hunter’s young son was asking to go to the bathroom. (2)

Sprague said that when she took out her phone to record, Hunter immediately moved her attention from the store employees to her. Sprague wrote, “I did not speak, react, or engage. Simply stood to document the behavior. When bullies are faced with accountability they must acknowledge the unacceptability of their actions. Within 30 seconds of filming her tirade was done and she left the poor staff in peace.” (2)

Hunter was arrested after the incident. At Hunter’s hearing on April 8, 2021, Sprague told the judge that she was being treated for a brain tumor. After Hunter coughed on her, Sprague said that she had spent days trying to find a place where she and her family could get tested for Covid 19. (1)

During the hearing, Sprague said, “I worried for the health and safety of my children, and wondered how in the world I could possibly isolate to protect them — in a household of 12 — if I had been intentionally infected.” Fortunately, Sprague and her family’s Covid 19  tests came back negative. (1)

Woman Sentenced to Jail Time for Coughing on Cancer Patient

During the hearing, Hunter and her husband tried to explain how her mental health at the time of the incident had contributed to its outcome. They said that they had experienced several misfortunes in the months beforehand. One of these was a house fire that destroyed all of their possessions. (1)

Hunter told the judge that she has already been punished for the altercation. She described her children losing friends and said that her family no longer goes out into the community. “I watch as my kids lower their heads and turn the opposite direction, so they won’t be recognized or approached,” Hunter said. “And I know exactly what they’re feeling because I do the same thing.” (1)

Duval County Court Judge James Ruth said that the part of Hunter’s testimony that left the biggest impression was that she focused on how her actions had affected herself and her own family. She said that Hunter did not seem to consider the impact she may have had on the victim. (1)

“Her children didn’t create this problem and her husband didn’t, and she talked about how it changed her world and she was getting nastygrams on Facebook and things of that nature and they can’t go to their country club or wherever,” Ruth said. “But I have yet to see any expression, or a significant expression on her regret about the impact it had on the victim in this case!” (1)

Ruth sentenced Hunter to 30 days of jail time. She also ordered her to pay for Sprague’s C-19 test, pay a $500 fine, and serve six months of probation. Additionally, Hunter will need to participate in a mental health evaluation and anger management. (1)


  1. https://apnews.com/article/florida-coronavirus-pandemic-jacksonville-92fecc40640607a3859e75aad1166ec3
  2. https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/2021/03/22/nassau-woman-who-coughed-in-face-of-cancer-patient-pleads-guilty-could-face-jail-time/ 

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