Falling Merchandise - Denver Post Article - 4/20/95


Woman who fell wins $519,000

By Kern S. Smith
Denver Post Staff Writer

A Pennsylvania woman who shattered her jaw and hurt her neck after tripping outside an Aurora Wal-Mart store three years ago won a $519,000 jury award Thursday.

The woman, Ruth Chamberlain, tripped over a cement block apparently in use as a doorstop outside the store's front doors.

An attorney for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville, Ark., said late Thursday that the company may appeal.

The Jury says Wal-Mart to blame for injury

Chamberlain has had several operations since the Jan. 18, 1994, fall, including a neck fusion and a jaw replacement. The injuries
juries and subsequent surgeries scarred and changed the shape of her face, Chamberlain's attorney said. Her medical bills total more than $200,000.

An Arapahoe County District Court jury agreed with Chamberlain that the fall was Wal-Mart's fault, including $60,000 in punitive damages in the half-million-dollar award.

The award is one of the largest "trip and fall" damages recorded in Colorado, said Brenda Sauro, Chamberlain's attorney.

"I was real pleased with the punitive damages," Sauro said. "It sends a strong message to Wal-Mart that they need to clean up their stores and make them safe."

Thursday's verdict was the third lawsuit Sauro and her co-counsel, Jim Hyman, have won against Wal-Mart stores for customer injuries.

The Colorado Court of Appeals in June upheld a $560,000 award to Barbara and Tom Trujillo. The Trujillos were shopping in the Westminster Wal-Mart when a 30-pound box fell off a cart and landed on Barbara Trujillo's neck and back.

A month before the appeals court upheld a $2.8 million award to Phillip and Joyce Scharrel for injuries sustained in a falling-merchandise incident at the Littleton Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart will evaluate how it can run a safer store in the wake of the Chamberlain lawsuit, said company spokeswoman Betsy Reithemeyer. More than 90 million people go through Wal-Mart stores each week, she added.

"Certainly every time someone is injured we go back and evaluate what we could have done differently to prevent that," Reithemeyer said. "There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our customers and associates."

Store safety will be stressed during the upcoming holiday season, as most Wal-Marts stock more merchandise during the holidays, sometimes making for higher merchandise stacks, Reithemeyer said.

Wal-Mart will evaluate how it can run
a safer store in the wake of the lawsuit.

Chamberlain was visiting relatives in the Denver area in 1994 when her daughter suggested going to Wal-Mart. She tripped over the cement block while carrying her grandson as they left the Wal-Mart store at 14000 E. Exposition Ave. As she fell, Chamberlain's grandson hit his head.

"They tried to blame me for tripping, but it was dark, and the cement block was the same color as the sidewalk and I just couldn't see it," Chamberlain said. "I'm pleased with the verdict, but now I just want to go home and love my family." At trial, Sauro said Wal-Mart sells doorstops for $1 to $4.

Chamberlain's injuries were especially serious because at the time of the fall, she was recovering from surgery for jaw problems.

The $519,000 award will grow by approximately $70,000 once interest is calcuated, Sauro said. She and Hyman have upcoming Wal-Mart injury lawsuits in Arizona and North Carolina.

Article Copyright 1995 The Denver Post Corp.


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