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2000-08-19
Los Angeles, CA. More Dangers of Big Box Shopping

More than four years after Sprawl-Busters reported on the dangers of shopping at big box retailers, the major media is now "discovering" the issue. In an August 16th article in the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper reported that thousands of shoppers have been hurt and some killed by falling merchandise. These cases have resulted in millions of dollars in lawsuits, "but the toll continues to mount", the paper reports. In 1994, for example, Wal-Mart paid out $410 million in lawsuit judgements. (See 8/13, 7/31 and 7/20/00 newsflash entries below for some of the more recent stories about serious injuries and deaths at Wal-Marts and Home Depots). The LA Times highlighted the case of 79 year old Mary Penturff, who was killed in November, 2000 at an LA Home Depot when a 19 year old forklift operator knocked over a load of lumber stacked above her. Penturff was crushed as her daughter stood by helplessly. Home Depot recently settled with the family for $900,000. The paper says court records from around the country going back to 1985 document thousands of injuries and deaths involving shoppers. As reported last year by Sprawl-Busters, Wal-Mart's own records indicate that from 1989 to 1995, Wal-Mart recorded 26,000 customer injuries from falling merchandise, and another 7,000 employees injured. At Home Depot the numbers fall out even worse: 185 injury claims each week, or more than 9,600 injuries every year. Home Depot responds by saying it conducts 1.5 billion transactions in a year (1.5 million per store per year x 1,000 stores).Wal-Mart's defense is similar. "When you consider that we have 100 million customers a week, the number of falling merchandise cases is very small," says Les Copeland, a Wal-Mart spokesman."Our overall track record is very good." That's of little consolation to the families who have lost a loved one, or left the store with a brain injured relative. The LA Times says that stores are rarely inspected for safety violations, penalties are weak, and the federal government focuses on worker safety, not consumer safety. According to the LA Times, 70 year old Dolly Cain was killed at a Sam's Club in Briscoe, OK in 1985, a 3 year old girl was killed at a Home Depot in San Diego in 1992; an Edmonds, WA woman was killed at a Home Base warehouse store in 1994; another child was killed by a falling wardrobe at Sam's Club in Abilene, TX in 1996. A Wal-Mart cabinet fell on a 2 year old girl in a Virginia Beach, VA store in 1997, and Sprawl-Busters reported two more deaths at Home Depot this spring in Twin Falls, ID and Danbury, CT. Wal-Mart claims its workers are properly trained, and conduct "bump tests" to see if merchandise is properly stacked, but its often the workers who "bump" a rack over onto a customer. One training video from Home Depot compares operating a forklift in the store to "driving a tank in a public area."

What you can do: "When a jury returns with a multi-million verdict," says attorney Jeff Hyman, who has represented plaintiffs in 9 court trials against Wal-Mart, "the community is saying that Wal-Mart isn't doing things right. But they don't seem to have gotten the message." The high stacking of merchandise, called sky shelves, which is merely an image stores try to create, since customers cannot reach up the shelves, present unique dangers to shoppers, especially when combined with operating forklifts moving pallets in the aisles while customers are shopping. The sky stacking of goods also eliminates the need for additional warehouse space. In many of these cases, like the elderly women who was killed in an Oklahoma Wal-Mart, the company appeals the multi-million judgements against it, and then trys to settle out of court. Wal-Mart is self-insured. All these accidents reinforce the notion that safety regulations need to be upgraded, and warehouse stores declared a "hard hat area". "People should be aware that they are in a working warehouse," said a Home Depot spokesman. "You need to be aware of what's going on around you, just like you're driving a car." But before shoppers enter a Home Depot, the store should receive a license of operate a "working warehouse" from the state or federal government. One judge cited by the LA Times said that shoppers should not bear responsibility for the store's lack of safety. "You'd have to wear safety helmets indoors," the judge said, "And I'm not prepared to do that?" Why not? All these stores should be treated just like a working construction site. According to OSHA rules, merchandise is supposed to be "stacked, blocked, interlocked and limited in height so that they are stable and secure against sliding or collapse." When I called OSHA, they admitted that they keep absolutely no records of serious injuries or deaths to shoppers -- only to employees. Until "hard hat" area regulations are passed, shoppers are warned to leave the children at home if you must go to a warehouse store, and take along a hard hat for protection.










 
 
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