Suits point to sales floor safety problems
In the past five years, more than 17,000 people, mainly customers, have reported injuries from falling Wal-Mart merchandise - everything from tissue boxes to basketball backboards - according to an internal company report.
That 334-page report was key to the lawsuit of Phillip Scharrel, who was awarded $3.3 million Thursday by a Denver jury. Scharrel suffered brain damage and other complications when two 40-pound ice drills stacked in boxes fell from a shelf at a Littleton, Colo. Wal-Mart in 1994.
Such accidents raise questions about the safety of discount and warehouse stores across the country, where serious injuries, and even deaths, have been reported in recent years.
In 1994, Betty Vale of Edmonds, Wash., was killed when a pallet of ceramic floor tiles fell from a high shelf at a Home Base building supply store. In 1993, a toddler was crushed to death by an hydraulic lift used to stack boxes on high shelves at a Best Buy store in Texas.
Even stores smaller than high-ceilinged "warehouse" outlets store boxes on shelves out of consumers' reach.
"Your warehouse is your selling floor," said Mary Hollins, director of risk management for a Seattle consulting firm, who is familiar with the Vale case. "In general, when you talk about warehouses, people are wearing hard hats and operating forklifts...It's not surprising that people are hurt."
Statistics are hard to come by, but the Wal-Mart experience averages out to almost two falling merchandise injuries per year at each of the company's 2, 141 stores. Settlements and jury awards from Wal-Mart injury claims have ranges from a few thousand dollars to $3.3 million for Scharrel.
It is impossible to tell from the company's accident report how serious the injuries are, though most appear to be to the upper body and legs. Wal-Mart officials did not repond to repeated requests for more details.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jane Arend said she was not aware of any specific actions that Wal-Mart was making to improve customer safety. "We are always trying to make it a safe environment," she siad. "We have taken ideas such as having employees wear weight-lifting belts" to reduce back injuries.
Building codes and the company's internal safety procedures gobern how goods are stacked and at what height. However, a Wal-Mart official acknowledged during Scharrel's trial that company policies were not followed in stacking the motorized ice augers on an overhead shelf at the Littleton store.
Kevin Husted, Wal-Mart's corporate director of risk control, said heavy objects should be stored at the lowest level. Looking at the blowup picture of Wal-Mart shelving in which big boxes of toliet paper were stacked near the ceiling, Husted acknowledged under questioning that such stacking also ran afoul of Wal-Mart quidelines.
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