June 23, 1996
THE DAYTONA BEACH SUNDAY NEWS-JOURNAL
Page - 3E
Falling merchandise provokes lawsuits
By JEFF MAMERA
Bloomberg Business News
BENTONVILLE, Ark. - Prices aren't the only thing tumbling at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The retailer, which warns shoppers to "Watch Out for Falling Prices!", is being hit with a slew of lawsuits over merchandise top-p1mg off shelves and clobbering customers. Among the items injuring shoppers: Ironing boards, barbecue grills, even tissue boxes, say personal-injury attorneys.
"This shouldn't happen - period," said Jeffrey Hyman, a Denver lawyer.
Some juries agree. Hyman won a $3.3 million award against Wal-Mart last year, after a client was clunked on the head by two power ice drills. Hyman struck again in March, winning $435,000 for a WalMart shopper injured when a 30-pound box slammed onto her back. He's now suing Wal-Mart on behalf of a 38-year-aid woman who says she was knocked cold in a North Carolina store when a toy truck crashed down on her.
Wal-Mart, which is appealing both of Hyman's victories, has launched training programs on shelf stacking and taken other safety measures aimed at curbing injuries.
"We're doing all that we can to address it," said Wal-Mart spokesman Jay Allen.
Dozens of other suits are pending against the company. Over the last five years more than 17,000 shoppers and employees reported injuries from falling goods at Wai-Mart, according to Wal.Mart records obtained by plaintiffs in a recent case. Wal-Mart claims that figure is misleading because the company's records cover a broad category of accidents, including products that drop out of shopping carts.
Wal-Mart isn't the only retailer being dragged into court. Best Buy Co., Waban Inc.'s Homebase home-improvement stores, and Kmart Corp. also have been sued over fallirig merchandise. Home Depot Inc. now faces a suit because a woman in its Boise, Idaho, store was allegedly struck by a 150-pound hot water heater that fell 18 feet. The company declined to comment.
"It's certainly a problem for the whole retail industry," said Mary Lorencz, a Kmart spokesman.
That's not surprising, considering the retailing industry's penchant for building cavernous stores where goods are stacked two-sto- -ries high. Contrast that with the days when shelves were head high and most inventory was stashed in a storage area in back.
The cases can be tragic. Marshalls Inc. last year was ordered by a jury to pay a Nebraska family $1.4 million after a 70-pound toy bin fell and killed a 4-year-old boy. And at a Sam's Club in Abilene, Texas, a wardrobe toppled and -killed a child in February, according to Wal-Mart, which owns Sam's Club.
Retailers say such incidents are rare. Goods that slip off shelves. usually drop harmlessly, they say. Even so, that doesn't stop suits from being brought: Wal-Mart says it recently was sued by a man, struck by a bundle of bathroom tissue.
"If you really believed these. plaintiffs' lawyers, you'd be afraid to get out of bed in the morning,". said Malcolm Wheeler, a corporate defense lawyer at Denver's Parcel, Mauro, Hultin & Spaanstra.
Others say the surge in litigation, doesn't necessarily reflect a rash of injuries caused by merchandise crashing to the ground. Instead, it has more to do with plaintiffs' law-'yers, who quickly compare notes, write articles about their legal~ strategies and share effective expert witnesses.
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