Falling Merchandise - Charlotte Observer

Charlotte man wins $2.2 million in suit Wal-Mart held liable for falling merchandise

Staff Writer

A Mecklenburg jury has awarded $2.2 million to a former Charlotte truck driver and his wife for injuries sustained when 1,000 pounds of Sam's Club merchandise fell on him nearly eight years ago.

The award arises from a January 1991 accident in which Louis Kilgo opened the door to his tractor-trailer at a Fayetteville store. An avalanche of fax paper and other goods loaded by Sam's Club employees knocked him unconscious.

Eight years and four surgeries later, he says he can't hold a job and struggles with mood swings, numb fingers and memory lapses from brain and neck injuries.

After a nine-day trial, a jury in Mecklenburg Superior Court on Friday decided in Kilgo's favor, holding Sam's Club and its parent company, Wal-Mart, responsible for his injuries.

The huge verdict marked the latest multimillion dollar victory for Jeffrey Hyman, a Colorado lawyer who has made a living the past six years suing Wal-Mart and other superstores on behalf of customers and employees bopped on the head by falling power drills, toys and pet food, among other things.

Now 51, Kilgo declined comment on the case Sunday. His wife, Carole, said she hoped Sam's Club and Wal-Mart would be safer about transporting and stocking goods.

"I hope this sends a message," she said. "It's bard when you have to go through something like this for seven or eight years."

Wal-Mart plans to appeal. The Arkansas-based retailer's lawyers have argued that since Kilgo drove for National Freight Inc., either he or his employer should take responsibility.

Wal-Mart spokesman Betsy Reithemeyer questioned the amount of the award.


"The safety of our customers and associates is important to us," she said. "However, at the same time, I think there needs to be a reasonableness in the court system when things do happen and we are found liable. What is a reasonable number (of dollars) to make someone whole?"

Hyman has been called the Marvin Mitchelson of falling-merchandise lawsuits - Mitchelson being the famous California divorce lawyer. Hyman parachuted into the Charlotte case at the request of the Kilgos' local attorney, Karen Zaman, who heard about Hyman through a colleague who saw a story about him on the syndicated television show "Inside Edition."

Hyman believes Kilgo's truck~ like Wal-Mart's store shelves, was tightly stocked with merchandise that the company failed to properly secure.

"It's consistent with the warehouse shopping environment presented by Wal-Mart," he said of Kilgo's case. "There is a lack of safety practices inside the store, and it's clear to me they have a lack of safety practices in their transportation and shipping as well."

Wal-Mart isn't the only low-price retail chain with rising legal bills. From Best Buy to Kmart to Home Depot, plaintiffs' lawyers are finding that falling-merchandise lawsuits appeal to juries.

Hyman suggested that, unlike some "trip-and-fall" lawsuit plaintiffs, falling-merchandise victims are hard for corporate lawyers to brand as gold-diggers or blame for injuries.

And huge, deep-pocket corporations like Wal-Mart, with $118 billion in sales last year, make attractive targets.

Hyman has notched several high-dollar verdicts against Wal-Mart and other giant retail stores, including a confidential settlement reached in December for a woman conked on the head by a toy truck at the Wal-Mart store off Arrowood Road.




Other recent awards include Colorado jury decisions of $3.3 million for a client hit by two power ice drills and $435,000 for a shopper struck by a 30-pound box.

Wal-Mart has launched training programs on shelf stacking. Reithemeyer said the company conducts regular safety reviews.

Other recent awards include Colorado jury decisions of $3.3 million for a client hit by two
power ice drills and $435,000 for a shopper struck by a 30-pound box.

The jury in the Kilgo case wasn't impressed. Jurors deliberated for less than three hours before reaching their verdict late Friday.

They awarded Louis Kilgo $2 million and gave his wife $225,000 for what his lawsuit called "loss of her husband's society and services and loss of
her conjugal rights."

Hyman on Sunday headed for California, where another Wal-Mart lawsuit awaits.

The Kilgos say they were just trying to get on with life.

"We struggled and battled with it since 1991," Carole Kilgo said. "I was just pleased that justice and truth won out."



Eric Frazier
covers legal affairs.


© 2000-2003 by Lohf Shaiman Jacobs Hyman & Feiger PC