Walmart v Chavez

Walmart v Chavez

Evidence Supported Jury’s Million Dollar Verdict for Man Injured at Sam’s Club When Car Slammed Through Store’s Café, Appeals Court Says

A Sam’s Club customer whose leg had to be amputated because of injuries he experienced when an out-of-control car slammed into the café of the Gaithersburg Sam’s Club where he had been shopping will get another chance to present his case to a jury.

Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals recently held that, although the man had presented enough evidence to support the jury’s multi-million dollar award, the trial court had made a number of prejudicial rulings so that the appellate court was reversing the decision and sending the case back down to the lower court for another trial.

Dimas Chavez and his wife were shopping at a Sam’s Club in Gaithersburg when they decided to stop for lunch at the store’s café. As Mr. Chavez waited in line to order, a car burst through the nearby fire doors and struck Mr. Chavez. Mr. Chavez injuries were serious and included the amputation of his leg. He and his wife sued Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Sam’s East, Inc. as well as the driver of the car that crashed through the building and the owner of the property on which the store was built.

The store was renovated in 2010 to add the café. The eatery was located behind the store’s front wall, which had been moved approximately 20 feet closer to the parking lot during the renovations. The drive aisles in the parking lot had been reconfigured so that a one-way drive aisle was aimed directly at the steel fire doors in the new front wall. There was no curb between the parking lot and the pedestrian walkway.

The Chavezes said in their lawsuit that the storeowner breached a duty to take reasonable steps to protect its customers against the foreseeable risk of vehicle-into-building crashes. The Chavezes argued that it is foreseeable that drivers will sometimes lose control of their vehicles in parking lots, whether because of medical emergencies, inattention or driver error or mechanical malfunctions and crash into buildings. A storeowner, the Chavezes said, has a duty to take reasonable steps to protect its customers against the foreseeable risk that a driver will lose control of the vehicle, crash into the store and injure customers.

An expert witness offered by the Chavezes testified that Wal-Mart had an obligation to install steel safety bollards in front of the areas of the store that are vulnerable to a vehicle-into-building crash, particularly areas where customers are likely to congregate. The expert said that if Wal-Mart had installed safety bollards in front of the fire doors in the Gaithersburg store, then the bollards would have prevented the driver from crashing through the doors and injuring Mr. Chavez.

Safety bollards are a steel pipe, eight-feet long and six inches in diameter, filled with concrete, the bottom four feet are buried in the ground, and four feet of steel and concrete extend above the surface.

A civil engineer for the plaintiffs testified that it is well known in civil engineering that drivers lose control of their vehicles and crash into buildings because of driver error or medical emergencies. He also testified that it is a known hazard in the big-box store industry that vehicles strike buildings. The expert said the design of the Gaithersburg store created a hazardous condition where one-way traffic was pointed directly at a soft spot in the wall and customers behind the wall would have no warning of a vehicle before it came crashing into the building. The expert said engineers direct one-way traffic away from the buildings doors and entrances and use safety bollards to prevent vehicles from entering a building.

The Circuit Court for Montgomery County found in favor of Chavez and his wife and awarded them $6,476,550, which included $3,755,000 in noneconomic damages. On Wal-Mart’s motion, the court reduced the noneconomic damages to $770,000 in accord with state law.

On appeal, Wal-Mart argued that the Chavezes had not established the existence of a duty to install bollards outside the fire doors at the Gaithersburg store. “We disagree,” the appeals court said, adding that Wal-Mart could not dispute that it had some duty of care to its customers, because they are business invitees -- people who were invited or permitted to be on Wal-Mart’s premises for purposes related to Wal-Mart’s business. Wal-Mart owes its invitees a duty to ensure that they can “traverse the public portions of its property without unreasonable risk of injury to themselves,” the court said. So, a jury could easily find that the accident arose from an unsafe condition and that the harm was foreseeable, the appeals court said.

However, the appeals court said it was reversing the decision and sending the case back for another trial because the trial judge had allowed the Chavezes to refer to facts that were not in evidence, i.e., facts about other incidents and stores where the Chavezes had not introduced evidence of any of the incidents.

If you’ve been involved in a personal injury accident in Baltimore City, Baltimore County or the surrounding areas, you should talk to a Baltimore personal injury accident lawyer. A Baltimore premises liability attorney can help. The attorneys at The Law Offices of Thomas J. Maronick have experience handling these cases. You can contact Thomas Maronick on his cellphone at 202.288.0167, the law office at 410.934.3007 or via our website for a free consultation.