Court ruling against Wal-Mart emphasizes premises liability and crowd control

Last week, a court upheld a ruling that fined the retailer giant Wal-Mart for a trampling death of an employee in 2008. The $7,000 fine was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the retailer spent $2 million trying to overturn the fine. The facts of the case stem from a customer stampede that killed a Wal-Mart employee over Thanksgiving weekend in New York. Although retailers do not want the government telling them how to manage sale events, retailers will probably follow crowd control guidelines issued by OSHA to avoid future premises liability issues.

The year 2008 was not the first time that crowd surges occurred at the retailer’s Valley Stream, New York location. During the three previous years eager shoppers pushed the doors off their hinges on Thanksgiving Friday. On the tragic Thanksgiving Friday in 2008 customers had already gotten by barricades placed 40 feet from the door at 3 a.m. Within the next hour there was no space between the crowd and the store’s outside entrance. Near the time of the store’s opening, around 5 a.m., a regional executive suggested the store should not open its doors because of the crowd’s unruliness and because of the lack of a police presence.

The store manager dismissed the suggestion. Before the doors were opened eight to 10 employees were preventing the doors from being pushed open. When the doors were unlocked, customers fell into the store and employees saved themselves from the onrush by jumping on top of vending machines. Again, the doors popped off their hinges. Tragically, Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death.

In 2009, Wal-Mart changed its crowd control policies. Early morning openings were eliminated and the store remained open from Thanksgiving Day to Black Friday. Steel barriers were setup in a zigzag fashion to prevent an unorganized crowd from forming. Customers were also given tickets for sought-after items in order to avoid the rush to obtain the items. No serious injuries from cars or death have been reported since at the location.