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 toppling 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 Wal-Mart shopper injured when a 30-pound box slammed onto her back. He's now suing Wal-Mart on behalf of a 38-year-old 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 Wal-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 falling 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 spokeswoman.
That's not surprising, considering the retailing industry's penchant for building cavernous stores where goods are stacked two- stories 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 four-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' lawyers, who quickly compare notes, write articles about their legal strategies and share effective expert witnesses.
"Once you get a nice little circle going with the experts and the plaintiffs lawyers, you get a proliferation of the suits," said Robert Foster of Atlanta's Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarsborough.
That's hardly good news for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart. The company's $93.6 billion in fiscal 1996 sales ranks it among the five biggest U.S. companies. That puts it squarely in the sights of plaintiffs' attorneys -- even though Wal-Mart says it follows the same federal safety rules as other retailers, which allow it to stack products to within 18 inches of the ceiling sprinklers.
"Wal-Mart has an epidemic," said Robert Palmer, a personal-injury lawyer in Springfield, Mo., who has filed several falling-merchandise suits.
Denver attorney Hyman has become something of an expert on how to beat Wal-Mart.
He hired a dozen expert witnesses -- including a neurologist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a neuropsychologist -- to testify at last year's trial leading up to the $3.3 million power ice drill jury verdict against Wal-Mart.
Hyman told the jury that his client, Phillip Scharrel, suffered brain damage when the augur fell on him and he had to give up his heating and air-conditioning business.
What caused the accident? Hyman says a Wal-Mart worker fell off the top step of a six-foot ladder while attempting to retrieve the equipment on a 10-foot-high shelf. He alleged the Littleton, Colo., store was negligent and violated the company's policy of stacking heavy objects on the bottom shelf.
Wal-Mart said the ladder broke, making the accident "an unforeseeable event."
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